Why Google?

WHY GOOGLE?  by Charlie Martin


So, why Google?

It’s been a little more than ten years now, and it’s hard to imagine the days before Google. But there were other search engines then: Yahoo and Ask Jeeves (still around, only now it’s just Ask.com) and Alta Vista among others.


Even mentioning them now brings to mind five mile walks on snowy summer mornings. Google has become so dominant in Internet search that I would guess half or more of the people using the Internet aren’t even aware there’s another choice. Google is so dominant that the name is used as a verb. Google is in danger of becoming generic, the trademark death Xerox and Kleenex fight incessantly.

In fact, Google doesn’t dominate just search. It has shaped the Web: search, mapping, JavaScript-and XML (AJAX) interfaces, even plain lightweight page styles and goofy made-up names with unexpected spelling.

In the technological Deadwood of the Internet, you’d think there’s be a new gun, come to beat Google and take over the search space. In fact, there regularly are stories about the latest “Google killer” – most recently, Wolfram|Alpha was mistakenly rumored to be it. (Mistakenly because Wolfram is trying something different: Alpha isn’t a search engine, it’s a calculation engine. See my review on Edgelings for details.) None of them work out, and none of the older competition seems to make any attempt to overcome Google’s lead. You have to wonder why . . .

When I started thinking about this piece, I did a little experimenting. I probably use Google a hundred times a day; so, for a few days, I would try the same searches on other search engines. I could write a research report (you don’t want that) but here’s the anecdotal result: when I tried searches on the various different search engines, they did one of two things – they either delivered me exactly the same results, in nearly the same order, as Google, or what they delivered was wildly wrong.


Oldsters should think back to the first days of Google. Remember when it first appeared, in beta (the style of announcing a “public beta” of a product that goes on for months or years is another Google innovation, come to think of it), with the super-simple interface and two buttons: “search”, and “I feel lucky.” It wasn’t the first search site by any means – that’s how Yahoo started, after all – but it had the magical property that if you typed in a query, it actually showed you something you wanted. You could even hit “I feel lucky” and, by golly, a lot of times Google would deliver something close to what you wanted. On other search engines, you got a bunch of links, and somewhere, maybe on the third or fourth page, you’d find something useful.

Google quickly dominated the search space because it was better: it did what you wanted. Google continues to dominate the search space, I suspect, because it’s still better, or at least because it’s no worse.

In the mean time, Google did another interesting thing. They noticed that to run the search engine, they needed immense computer power, and even more immense storage, and because they needed to keep up with the growth of the Internet they searched, they always needed to add more; that means there’s always spare capacity. So, instead of making a massive investment to become a portal, as companies like MSN and Yahoo were doing, they built their massive infrastructure on search – and then noticed they could become a portal at almost no incremental cost. Do they completely dominate free email, portal content, on-line applications, and so on? Maybe, maybe not – but they did it at very nearly zero cost.


This, I think, is the answer to the question “Why Google?” They started with a good idea, and they learned to make money from it. They continue to make money from it because no one else can do it really – noticeably – better. The other things they do, portals and Google Docs and so on, they can do for free because effectively, at the margin, they are free.

The Google killer, if and when it comes, will have to have the same properties: it will have to be really noticeably better than Google; it’ll have to have a way to make money while being better; and it will have to find a way to do so while giving away the visible service.


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