Twentieth birthday celebrations usually afford us a chance to look forward rather than back. After all, the notable accomplishments of most 20-year-olds amount to little more than a few exam successes, a driver licence and conquering acne.
In the case of Google, however, the accomplishments of this 20-year-old are more diverse – and a few are even worth celebrating.
So here are 20 things Google has taught us over the two decades since it was founded on September 4, 1998.
1. A strong search engine
The first thing Google taught us was the value of a strong search engine. Before Larry Page and Sergey Brin came along, there had been other search engines, but it was their algorithm that produced comprehensive and, more importantly, qualitative results. Being able to distinguish between high- and low-quality websites gave Google a huge advantage, which it would leverage in its other tech.
PageRank was barely noticed by most web users, but was the cause of many sleepless nights for a generation of webmasters. Sites with low PageRanks would appear at the bottom of search results and those with high PageRanks would appear at the top. Google’s search engine made it the arbitrator of quality on the web and the ultimate decider of what we would all see.
An extension of PageRank was the tools that Google provided to website owners so they could make sites attractive to the “Googlebots” that “crawled” for content.
3. Google Analytics
Google Analytics brought the world a new industry called “Search Engine Optimisation”. Knowing what magical keywords brought visitors to a website was now the clever way to do business. Companies that didn’t pay attention to what Google wanted were companies unprepared for the new economy based around micro-targeting. Meanwhile, for users, Google provided the Big Data that revealed who we were.
4. Google Zeitgeist
It powered Google’s Zeitgeist, later renamed Google Trends, which summarised the topics and people that were popular.
Here is interest in ramen (red), pho (blue) and soba (yellow) noodles over time (as captured by things such as Google search queries). Ramen clearly wins:
5. Google AdSense
Google also taught us how to monetise the web and Google AdSense became the advertising delivery service that monetised much of the early internet.
Yet the more Google got to know us, the more we learnt to protect our privacy from Google. This became one of the company’s weaknesses and, over 20 years, it has been forced to backtrack more than once. It would eventually stop sharing search terms with website owners and start to protect their users’ data from third-party misuse.
The company afforded us a free, robust email system in the form of Gmail, yet would back away from plans to deliver advertisements based on the contents of a user’s emails.
7. Google Maps
We began to get leery about Google peering inside our computers and tracking what we do, yet it didn’t stop them trying to do the same in the outside world with equally predictable results. Google Maps taught us how cartography could be relevant and even fashionable again.
But more controversial was StreetView, which brought us a new way of looking at the world at the price of providing a new way for others to watch us. Suddenly Google was a byword for intrusion.
9. Google Glass
These fears were compounded by Google Glass, a head-mounted display containing a camera that could stream video to the web. One of the company’s genuine failures, Glass marked the point at which the company’s liberal attitude towards data touched a nerve with the public. We began to see that there wasn’t always a benevolent side to Google.
10. Google Books
The brand’s openness was particularly open when it came to other people’s properties. Google Books taught us to value copyright and it revealed the friction between the ambitions of a hugely powerful corporation and the rights of the individual. The problem ran to the heart of its search-engine business.
11. Google Images
Even as we learnt to love Google Images, we also grew to understand the nuances of copyright infringement and where “fair use” ended. In 2006, a United States district court ruled that Google acted lawfully when collating images, but these concerns are far from settled.
12. Google Docs
Moving to the “cloud” is key to Google’s continued success, but it also raises concerns. Google Docs is the free alternative to Microsoft Office and proves that the web can be used as something more than a passive repository of information. Yet not every individual or company will be happy with another company holding all its sensitive data.
Where Google did produce an original product was in the creation of Android, the mobile operating system that challenged Apple’s iOS. To this day, it holds a huge lead over its rival in terms of the number of installs and choice of apps. Android is nearly ubiquitous on non-Apple devices; its strength lies in its flexibility, which allows users (and programmers) freedom to customise its look.
14. Design methodology
Yet Google inadvertently taught us a hard lesson in design methodology, showing how freedom can mean clutter, non-standard interfaces, and bugs because of poor third-party coding. Apple, on the other hand, maintains a strict control of the look and use of its operating system. That’s why, despite its popularity, the future of Android remains uncertain.
15. Chrome OS
Rumours of an Android replacement surfaced this year, and Google might already have that in its Chrome OS, an operating system for laptops that has proved that cloud-based alternatives to Windows are viable.
16. A good name
Beyond the tech, Google also taught us the power of a good name; taking a word derived from the word “googol” (10 followed by 100 zeros) and making it synonymous with the act of searching (to “Google somebody’s name”, for example). It redefined an industry and, perhaps, business itself.
17. The Google Campus
The Google Campus showed what modern employment could look like, with casual workplaces matched by work-hour flexibility. It’s a place where no idea is too crazy.
18. 20% time policy
Google became the byword for investing in the talent of its employees. Its “20% time” policy allows employees to spend 20 per cent of their time pursuing their own projects that will contribute to the company’s ideas base. The initiative led to some of Google’s most popular services, though critics claim that most employees are now working too hard to explore their own projects. Even if true, this sense of doing things differently remains one of Google’s most powerful myths.
19. Google Doodles
Google also taught us to take work a little less seriously. Google Doodles have become an art in themselves. Plus there are countless “Easter eggs” hiding in the Google universe. These little novelties are triggered by certain keywords. Type “Do a barrel roll” into Google’s search engine and your screen should do a barrel roll. Search for “recursion” and Google will ask “Did you mean: recursion” which links to the very same page.
20. The future
Lastly, while Apple and Amazon regularly appear at the top of lists of the world’s biggest and most profitable companies, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, does not even rank in the top 50.
That speaks volumes about an unusual company that dominates in its chosen sectors, but maintains a large portfolio of other projects that often produce short-term losses. Google is a company that bets on its own long-term success, teaches us to lean into the future, and have faith in the union of technology and imagination. That, ultimately, is the force that drives Google, and is perhaps also its greatest lesson.
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