What a long, strange trip it's been.
Google wouldn't exist if it weren't for two very independent-minded young PhD candidates who went a little overboard on a school project. Larry Page and Sergey Brin revolutionized search, added a word to the human lexicon and became fabulously wealthy, because they weren't afraid to try something weird. This may be hard to believe, but back in "the day" search wasn't considered a crucial tech market. One potential investor even told the Google Guys that his users didn't "really care about search".
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Once folks started to realize just how special Google's search engine was, things happened very quickly. The company grew from a Menlo Park, California garage to a Mountainview multinational. On August 19, 2004 the company went public. And things started to go awry. A series of sketchy choices and supposed violations of user privacy lent their slogan "Don't be evil" a sad sense of irony.
I'm not sure what I'd call Google's "lowest" point so far. Perhaps when then-CEO Eric Schmidt attempted to bury search results pertaining to some awkward political donations. Or perhaps when their Buzz service ended up connecting a battered woman (against her will) to her violent ex.
As colorful as those mistakes were, they aren't particularly shocking when viewed across the backdrop of Silicon Valley. This is a dirty industry and Google is a giant company. Attracting dirt is an unavoidable side-effect of going public. Apple started in a garage too- and now they sicc literal SWAT teams on journalists and an army of lawyers on anyone else who damages their interests.
To make a boring story pithy, Google was really good at being bad. Android may be one of the great corporate backstabs of all time. Google and Apple were tight in each other's pockets prior to the launch, which Steve Jobs took as a personal insult. The search giant started throwing out services- a whole set of free apps, Gmail, Voice, Navigator, in order to drive traffic to their core business. This "moat" also siphons private data from Google users and feeds it into their giant data centers.
Google uses this raw mountain of information to improve search results and the "pointedness" of their advertising. Which is why an email about your dog's death leads to a distinct uptick in the number of pet mummification services you see in banner ads. Over the last few years, Google has made billions as the world's most altruistic stalker. What other company would literally take your voice and then use it to revolutionize the field of linguistics? For 'free'?
This habit of offering high-quality (and occasionally revolutionary) services at no charge may be the foremost reason Google still enjoys such a rosy public image.
While Google has been a very successful giant corporation, her founders fear that she may be too slow and unwieldy to face the growing threat of Facebook. Google will go toe-to-toe with the FTC or Apple or Microsoft any day of the week. But Facebook's Splinternet is a threat that cuts straight to the core of Google's business- search. Facebook and her partner sites form a closed loop that feeds no traffic- and thus no data or ad revenue- to Google.
The search giant's attempts at bridging the social media gap have been unsuccessful and, largely, uninspired. They were the clumsy strikes of a myopic giant. And Google's founders- still young, still brilliant and still free-thinkers, recognized this.
Which is why Larry Page has stepped up as CEO and reorganized the entire company. He's cut out "fat"- meaning excess management, and split Google into a number of business units with more-or-less complete autonomy. Little oversight and lots of cash turned Android into the raging monster it is today. The hope is that the same will be true for Google's other ventures- including their forays into social media.
And now there's a memo circulating from (purportedly) inside Google. It states that ALL Google employee bonuses will be based in part on the company's success in social media. From the memo:
"It can vary from 0.75 to 1.25 on how well we perform against our strategy to integrate relationships, sharing and identity across our products. If we're successful, your bonus could be up to 25% bigger. If not, your bonus could be as much as 25% less than target."
This move- one of the first from CEO Page, was intended to restore the sense of 'urgency' employees at a start-up tend to have. But Google isn't exclusively looking back at their past for inspiration- they're also looking to Apple in an attempt to reverse Android's fragmentation and improve overall quality. Since Page and Brin both see Jobs as a mentor, this control-focused Apple attitude seems likely to spread.
The next phase of Google's life looks to be a battle between the chaotic freedom of its roots and the need for control that comes with being giant. Too much from either extreme could ruin the unique mix that has made Google a household name- and a force for positive change.