Oct 21, 2020 - Technology

Google's 20-year path from David to Goliath

An illustration of four peoples' silhouettes in front of a Google logo

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

It's taken Google two decades to transform from a beloved search innovator into a Big Tech behemoth.

Flashback: At Google's launch 22 years ago, it provided accurate, simple, fast results — unlike its competitors in search, which had become bloated "portals" — and quickly won the hearts first of Internet insiders and then of the broader public.

Yes, but: "That Google is long gone," declares the Department of Justice's new antitrust lawsuit against the company — replaced by today's "monopoly gatekeeper for the internet."

Context: Google spent its first decade as the clear first choice for search, putting usability first, reducing clutter on its pages, impartially ranking search results and generally avoiding "evil," as an early company motto urged.

  • Google earned a ton of goodwill and loyalty from users who saw little reason over the years to switch to older competitors like Yahoo (which for a time even used Google to run its search) and later ones like Microsoft's Bing and Amazon's A9.

What changed:

1. Google figured out how to make money. The company started out openly hostile to advertising — "We expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers," founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote in the 1998 paper that introduced Google to the world.

  • In the beginning, Google's targeted search ads were unobtrusive text links that were well distinguished from the "organic" search results.
  • But after the company's 2004 IPO, as investors demanded returns and the company sought money to fund global growth and a wide array of "moon shots," the ads gradually took over more and more of the search page.

2. Google bought other companies. The two most important acquisitions were YouTube (2006), which pulled Google into the media world, and DoubleClick (2007), which gave Google the foundation to seize control of a huge chunk of the online advertising market.

3. Google moved into all sorts of other businesses beyond search. Gmail (2004) brought Google's simplicity and reliability to email. Google Maps (2005) made geography programmable. Google Docs (2006) offered a streamlined, free, cloud-based alternative to Microsoft Office.

  • By age 10, Google was way more than a search company.

4. Google built a free mobile operating system, Android. That cemented its power as smartphones became the dominant tech platform — and gave it the kind of market muscle that the U.S. government now charges represents illegal monopolistic overreach.

What's next: Google successfully ferried its dominant search franchise from the desktop era into the mobile age. Now, on the threshold of tech's next transformative moment, as mobile begins to give way to voice, VR/AR, and other alternatives, the company has to pull off the same stunt — while fighting off the government in court.

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