How Google changed the world

Google was incorporated 21 years ago, on September 4th 1998. It had begun life in 1996 when two Stanford PhD students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, thought up a better way of making searches. Instead of counting the search term’s appearances on the page, they wanted a system that analyzed the relationships among websites. They called it PageRank, and it determined a website's relevance by the number of pages, and the importance of those pages that linked back to the original site.

The name was later changed to Google, which is how they mistakenly thought a googol was spelt. A googol is the number 1 followed by a hundred zeros. They chose the name to indicate that the search engine was intended to provide an enormous amount of information. It was initially funded by four ‘angels,’ one of whom was Jeff Bezos of Amazon. They moved to Palo Alto six months after incorporation, and they never looked back.

I met both Larry Page and Sergey Brin at a Soyuz launch in Kazakhstan 10 years after they founded Google, and was struck by how boyish they were. I’ve observed this in several go-getting entrepreneurs; they seem to retain a boyish sense of enthusiasm and fun throughout life. Both were already fabulously rich, and destined to become more so. In 2012 the company passed the $50bn mark in annual revenue. Two years later it was reckoned that if it were a country, it would rank 70th in the world in terms of riches, richer than 123 members of the United Nations.

Its name has passed into language, with the verb “to google” defined in dictionaries as "to use the Google search engine to obtain information on the Internet." People use Google Analytics to track their site’s popularity. They use YouTube, owned by Google since 2006, for video viewing and sharing. They use Gmail for e-mails, Google Maps to find locations, Google Drive for cloud storage, Google Chrome as their web browser, and many use the Android mobile operating system Google developed. And, of course, there’s hardware in the shape of a smartwatch, TV, and soon a driverless car.

Their story has not been without issues. Google Glass raised privacy issues from people not wanting to be under surveillance and filmed by strangers without their consent. Their obedience to China’s Great Firewall of internet censorship blocks access by Chinese people to much information about the world outside.

The European Commission imposed a €1.49 billion fine on them for “acting unfairly” against rivals for online advertising, though many think this is just the EU attempting yet again to have funds paid direct to it instead of via national governments, just like their proposed Financial Transfer Tax. Perhaps more seriously, the United States Department of Justice announced in June that it would investigate Google for antitrust violations.

Google's corporate philosophy, however, is benign. They have mottos such as "you can make money without doing evil," "you can be serious without a suit," and "work should be challenging and the challenge should be fun." The company cultivates a laidback air that softens the edges of a very competitive organization.

It has made me very much more productive, and more knowledgeable. Previously when writing books I had to research my way through piles of books, whereas now I look up on line what I need to quote or to refer to. When I encounter something I don’t know, I look it up. Yet hardly any of this shows in GDP. It is a similar case with other online sites. They enhance life without showing in the economic figures. If someone had the same real-terms income they had twenty years ago they would be very much better off than they were then because of all of the developments that have added value to life. It rather suggests that GDP is at best a somewhat crude measure of economic performance.