A World Without Google

On Google's 10th anniversary, it's hard to imagine life without it. But I'm going to try.

By  |  Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 9:37 am

Ten years ago today, Google’s filing for incorporation as a business was accepted. It’s far from the only date one might choose to mark the company’s tenth birthday–and as I write this, I don’t see any celebrating going on at Google’s home page or corporate blog–but many Googlewatchers are doing their ruminating on Ten Years of Google right now. (I’ve already done some myself in my posts on bizarro Google offshoots and the company’s 1998 homepage.)

The first thought that jumped into my head when I pondered the anniversary was this: It’s only been that long? Google has become so core to how I live my life that I forget that I managed to spend thirty-four years without it–including twenty years of being online in one form or another. There just aren’t that many commercial products or services that have become anywhere near so pervasive. (Coca-Cola? McDonald’s? The Gillette safety razor?)

Once I started to think about life before Google, I began to toy with the idea of life without Google. What if the world had gotten to 2008 without the company ever being formed? (Maybe Sergey Brin and Larry Page had never been born; maybe they became Stanford professors; maybe they became fabulously successful at some other endeavor–I dunno.) Just how different would life–or at least life on the Internet–be?

A few thoughts, category by category:

Web Search
McCracken’s Eleventh Law of Technology Innovation famously states that anything that’s ever been invented would have been eventually invented even if the person or persons who invented it had never been born. If Thomas Edison hadn’t come up with the light bulb and phonograph, for instance, we wouldn’t be without ’em in 2008–somebody else would have invented in due time.

And as revolutionary as Google’s PageRank algorithm was when it debuted, it was, in retrospect, an obvious idea: A Web site that has lots of links from other sites is more likely to be good, and should therefore rank higher in search results. I can’t imagine that this notion would have simply never existed if Brin and Page hadn’t originated it in the form of BackRub, Google’s predecessor. Someone else would have come up with it, and would likely have blown away AltaVista and other early search engines in accuracy, just as Google did.

Google’s original home page was almost as revolutionary as PageRank, simply because it was…simple. Not much more than a logo, a text field, a Search button, and and I’m Feeling Lucky one. It was a major part of why Google took off originally, and while nearly every major search engine ended up shamlessly copying it,
I think it’s possible that nobody else would have been daring enough to try it.

Once Google had been successful with Web search, it was obsessive about building everything it did around search: If there’s a Google product or service in which a search field is not core to the functionality and prominent in the user interface, I’m not thinking of it now. Countless other companies have bought into the notion that search is the Internet’s defining tool; nobody else has riffed on the idea as effectively as Google.

So the bottom line on Web search is this: If Google hadn’t existed, we surely wouldn’t have gotten something exactly like Google in its place. And maybe not something as good. But search would surely have evolved just as radically, maybe as far, and probably in the same general direction.

Google is the only technology company with a mission that I can repeat off the top of my head: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. That doesn’t mention advertising, and it’s probably a safe bet that Sergey Brin and Larry Page would hope that they’re not remembered primarily as advertising men. But Google did revolutionize advertising. And the billions of dollars Google has made from advertising are what has funded virtually everything else they’ve done: If Google Web search was just as good as it is today but didn’t carry such effective, profitable ads, Google would never have become the Google we know.

Google didn’t invent the idea of auctioning off ads that appeared with a search engine’s results. A company called GoTo.com was doing the same thing years before Google started, albeit not as elegantly and with more controversy. If Google had never come to be, other search engines would likely be doing it today. And I think there’s a good chance that the democratizing effect of the company’s approach to advertising, which lets companies of all sizes get in front of everybody who uses the Internet, would have happened.

But Google’s approach to text ads was more user-friendly than GoTo’s–the ads appeared alongside organize search results, rather than displacing them–and used more sophisticated plumbing. And it was paired with what would have been the best search engine with or without advertising. That was incredibly potent, and it’s not clear that another company would have figured it out. Yahoo, after all, ended up buying GoTo.com, but has never monetized its search engine nearly as effectively as Google has, which is why it winded up agreeing to outsource some of its advertising sales to Google.

Microsoft has also consistently failed to match Google’s potency as an ad platform, even though the basics of how Google does what it does are entirely public and available for imitation or refinement. You gotta think that if nobody can figure out how to top Google’s approach to ads, it might be that nobody would have come up with it in the first place.

Oh yeah, one other thing about Google and advertising: The company only figured out the ad part of its business after it had created a superb, wildly popular search engine. It certainly didn’t originate the idea of “getting big fast” on the Internet–many companies from the first dot-com boom also postponed worrying about revenue until after they’d built a service and gotten lots of people to sign up for it. But nearly all of those first generation Web companies should have worried about money; by not doing so, they turned from dot-coms into dot-bombs. Google re-legitimized the idea of figuring out a business model late in the game, and countless companies have copied it since…although none have done so with the same degree of success.

Google is ten; Gmail is only a bit over four. And when Google announced on April 1st, 2004 that it was giving users a gigabyte of storage, many took it as a hoax. (Looking back at the original Gmail press release, Google wanted folks to wonder if it was a practical joke.) At the time, Microsoft’s Hotmail offered a parsimonious 2MB of space; how often does anyone top what a competitor is doing by a factor of 500X?

Disk storage has gotten so cheap that large inboxes would have come along with or without Google. I think it’s possible, though, that they wouldn’t have gotten as big as quickly–and Google’s current 7GB allotment still tops Hotmail.  (Yahoo, on the other hand, now claims to offer unlimited space–something it might never have been prompted to do if Gmail didn’t exist.)

Gmail was a landmark in another way: It scanned your e-mail and displayed relevant ads. At first, many people found this creepy and some even said it should be illegal. In the long run, though, almost nobody seemed to find it objectionable in practice, in part because Gmail was so basically useful, and in part because Google was entirely open about what it was doing. It’s easy to imagine other companies who might have done something similar backing down during the initial firestorm–I’m thinking of Facebook and its Beacon ads. But Google weathered the controversy and changed how people think about use of their personal information. (One Google trait that isn’t often discussed is its extreme stubborness: When it wants to do something, it really wants to do it…and probably will.)

Oh, and Gmail’s emphasis on powerful search was a fresh idea in 2004; today, you assume that every Web service will have decent search. Woulda happened with or without Google; might not have happened as fast without the tendency of every other company on the Web to steal Google’s good idea.

Ultimately, Gmail didn’t change everything for e-mail, and some of the things it did change would have happened with or without Google. But the change likely happened faster than it would have otherwise.

Local Search
Google Maps is one of my favorite Google services, and arguably the one other than basic Web search where Google’s approach to user interfaces has been most effective. It’s also among the company’s most-imitated products: The local search services from Microsoft, Yahoo, Ask, and others all clone the basic idea.

Before Google Maps came along, of course, Mapquest was the gold standard in maps and local info. Even today, it’s struggling to get to where Google Maps has been for years. Local search would have been significant no matter what, but I think it’s quite possible that we wouldn’t have gotten to today’s map-driven approach to things so quickly sans Google.

Then there’s Google Earth. This one’s easy: It would have existed with or without Google, since it began as a product from a company called KeyHole, which Google acquired in 2004. KeyHole’s software was mindblowing even before Google got into the act. But Google instantly did something with it that was mindblowing at the time: It reduced the price to…nothing. That got the software in front of far more people than would have ever tried it if it had remained a for-pay application from a small company.

Google has also invested massive resources in beefing up both Google Maps and Google Earth, including efforts such as Google Street View and its photos taken by roving vans. Just this weekend, a satellite went up to supply Google with imagery for its mapping products. Nobody else as interested in local search as Google is has poured so much money into making it better. (Google Street View was preceded by a feature in Amazon’s A9.com search engine that was virtually identical–but Amazon gave up before it had photographed more than a few areas.) As with many other areas, Google’s combination of wild ambition and bushels of cash has let it push ideas that would have existed anyhow further than they might have gone.

This one seems pretty simple on the surface. Google didn’t really figure out video until it bought YouTube, which was trouncing Google Video at the time. It’s done a nice job of integrating YouTube with other Google services, but none of the integration has been profound in any way.

But wait a minute–YouTube clearly borrowed ideas from Google in the first place, such as its search-driven interface. The company also borrowed Google’s willingness to concentrate on making a good product first, then figuring out how to make money from it later. Video would surely be important on the Web in 2008 no matter what, but YouTube, like countless successful Web companies, owes a large debt to Google as an example. That would be true even if Google hadn’t ended up buying YouTube and making the relationship official.

Social Networking
Really easy: Google started a service called Orkut that wasn’t the first social network and is dominant in only a few places, such as Brazil. Yes, MySpace and Facebook (especially Facebook) riff on ideas that originated with Google. But a world without Google would likely still have had MySpace and Facebook in something damn close to their current incarnations.

Other Products
Google has an astounding array of services beyond the ones I’ve written about…and for the most part, they’re either non-revolutionary or it’s too early to tell if they’re going to revolutionize anything. A few quick notes on some of them:

–It’s certainly possible that Google Apps will end up replacing Microsoft Office as the world’s dominant office suite. Hasn’t happened yet, though. And Apps builds on ideas that other companies came up with (ThinkFree was taking on Office almost a decade ago) and is built on the technologies of companies that Google acquired, such as Writely.

Google Health could change the world, but it’s a long way from doing so. And even if it does some day, predecessors such as WebMD will deserve at least as much credit, giving that they originated ideas seen in Google’ health product.

–Of everything that Google does, Google Book Search may be the project with the highest potential to change the world–wouldn’t it be cool if every book ever published was available online?–and the lowest payoff to date. I remain hopeful that we’ll eventually look back on it as something profound that might not have existed if Google hadn’t devoted so much energy to making it happen;

Chrome could be profoundly important. Right now, though, it’s just an intriguing-but-unfinished browser.

Then there’s another category of Google service: Companies it’s bought and done little or nothing with. For instance, it bought Jaiku and Dodgeball. Both are kinda like Twitter…but it’s Twitter that’s the huge hit. Not only would a world without Google still have had Twitter; it might have had an independent Jaiku and Dodgeball that were more successful.

If Not Google, Who?

By virtually any definition, Google is the most important company on the Web. Which brings up an obvious question: If there’d never been a Google, who would have been the most important Web company?

Microsoft? There’s no question that Google’s success gives Microsoft fits and has left it trying to turn itself into Google. Or that back in the mid-1990s, Bill Gates and company envisioned themselves as being more important on the Web than they turned out to be. But if you take Google out of the equation, I don’t see a scenario in which Microsoft turned out to be as powerful online as it’s been on the desktop; it was already failing to be so even before Google came along.

AOL? Nah–it’s too obvious that its success was built on dial-up and it failed to be as relevant in the broadband era. That would have happened with or without Google.

Comcast or AT&T? God, I hope not!

Yahoo? Maybe! For all the company’s much-publicized challenges as a business, it’s still huge and moneymaking and used by almost everybody. Google’s dominance forced Yahoo into a second-fiddle role, but if you simply imagine the Web as it is in 2008 except without Google, you might come to the conclusion that Yahoo was its most important company.

Somebody else? What-if questions are by definition unanswerable, and the more you depart from reality as it is, the more unanswerable they become. If Brin and Page hadn’t built Google, somebody else might have built something similar that would have become the dominant search engine–and maybe even the most important company on the Web. But simply building a search engine similar to Google wouldn’t have led to everything that’s Google circa 2008.

Final Thoughts
Thinking about everything that Google does, the company really does boil down into a few simple items that make it what it is. Namely:

–it built a splendid product that came to dominate one of the most important tasks on the Internet;

–it does a remarkable job of leveraging that success to make boatloads of money;

–it has extended the idea of search in a zillion directions–not always successfully, but often so;

–it’s fairly frequently had brainstorms that other companies would have rejected, such as giving away a gigabyte of space for e-mail;

–it’s almost always focused its energies on building simple interfaces that people like, then monetizing them after the fact;

–it’s used some of its bushels of money to buy many other innovative companies, such as KeyHole and YouTube and–in some cases, at least–taken their ideas further than they could have on their own;

–it’s used other bushels of money to engage in wildly ambitious projects like Google Book Search that other companies might not have pursued.

These are the things that make Google Google. It’s a strikingly different list of corporate characeristics than those of Microsoft or Yahoo or any other major Web company. And while every single thing that makes Google Google has been widely copied by other companies–sometimes very successfully–the whole package remains unique.

In the end, I can imagine a world without Google; I can imagine an Internet that’s just as wonderful without it; I can even imagine an Internet that’s better in certain respects. (People have been asking whether Google is too powerful for years, and even if the answer is “no, not really” right now, it may not stay that way forever.)

I still feel fortunate to have had it for ten years, though–and if I spend the rest of my life using Google in one form or another, it would neither surprise nor displease me…



2 Comments For This Post

  1. Andrew Mager Says:

    I couldn’t not use Google. I’ve tried it so many times, and I just fail. Very in-depth article Harry.

  2. Krystalo Says:

    A world without Google would be a better world.

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