Not bad for a 20-year-old
Happy birthday, Google

Google CandlesHard to believe: Google launched 20 years ago this month. By accident or design, its name is a misspelling of the number googol. If it was by accident, you have to wonder why founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t bother googling the correct spelling.

Playing trademark roulette

Not long after the Google’s appearance in 1998, google became a verb, as in, “I’m going to google that,” eventually earning itself an entry in the 2006 Merriam-Webster dictionary. Per MW, to google is “to use the Google search engine to obtain information about (someone or something) on the World Wide Web.” Yet I suspect these days googling could refer to searching by use of any search engine. If that’s so, Google’s parent company Alphabet should take heed. Product names that enter the lexicon as verbs or common nouns have a habit of losing their protected status. Google could join the ranks of no-longer protected trademarks the likes of aspirin, elevator, cellophane, and, most recently, monopoly. It’s not hard to imagine a day when you may hear something along the line of, “I googled it on Yahoo.”

As it is, Google plays a bit of Russian Roulette with its trademark. A cardinal rule of trademark protection is to keep the mark consistent, but there’s no telling what treatment of the Google mark will greet you.

Yet maybe Google has no need for concern. While google, lower-case g, is arguably a generic term, there is no ambiguity when it comes to Google, upper-case g, referring to the corporate giant. In terms of company valuation, Google is second only to Apple. As of this writing, Fortune says Google “… has a market capitalization of more than $850 billion, says it has indexed hundreds of billions of pages and is aware of over 100 trillion.”

The ubiquity of Google products after just two decades is staggering. We have Android, ChromeGoogle Maps, Gmail, Google News, Google Analytics, Google Ads, Google Images, Google Translate, Google Docs, and a list of many more that seems to go on all but ad infinitum. 

About you, me, and our neighbors

Google statistics tell us a good deal about ourselves. As I write, the three most googled people of 2018 are Donald Trump, Stephen Hawking, and Stormy Daniels. Most-googled animals are dogcat, and chicken. Most-googled athletes are LeBron James, Tiger Woods, and O.J. Simpson. (I found nothing on most-googled football teams, but I’m confident that each of the top three is the Denver Broncos.)

Google was nearly pre-empted by the United States Air Force. Back in the punch card days of 1963, research engineer Charles Borne and computer programmer Leonard Chatlin were at work on what could rightly be called a Google precursor. The current issue of Smithsonian reports:

The duo’s program was designed to work the way Google does: A user could search for any word in the files. Their database consisted of just seven memos that Bourne typed onto punched paper tapes and then converted to magnetic tape … The data lurched over telephone lines—your smartphone is more than 10,000 times faster—but after a long moment, the right answer popped up. Bourne and Chaitin had proven, for the first time, that online search was possible.

Lucky for Google and for reasons unknown, the Air Force discontinued Borne’s and Chatlin’s work. 

Curiously, notes the article, googling “inventor of search” turns up little to nothing about Borne or Chatlin. You’ll find numerous links to one Alan Emtage, who also wrote a pre-Google search engine. But Emtage was born in 1964, making it unlikely that his search engine pre-dated Borne’s and Chatlin’s 1963 creation.

Genesis and adult supervision

The seeds of Google were sown when Page and Brin met as fellow participants at Stanford University’s computer science graduate program. They began work on an idea for a search engine in 2006. At first they called their project Backrub, a reference to “its initial heavy reliance on back-links to validate the popularity of a website it was indexing,” according to OrangeWebsite. Next came the search algorithm’s moniker, PageRank, which, still in use, is a play on Larry Page’s name. 

Page and Brin were unusually capable mathematician-programmers with a killer idea that took off, but they had the savvy and humility not to mistake initial success for all the business acumen they’d need. In 2001, they recruited technologist and business leader Eric Schmidt to run the company. According to Brin, Google had grown to the point of needing “adult supervision.” 

Today, Google “… processes over 40,000 search queries every second on average … which translates to over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide.” That’s according to Internet Live Stats, whose Google Search Statistics page posts informative charts and a running tally and is well worth a visit. 

Two-edged sword

A meteoric rise can be a two-edged sword. Americans tend to celebrate Davids only to turn on them should they become Goliaths. Witness, for instance, Walmart’s journey from being the underdog that took on Sears to today, when many view it as an economic pariah. Predictably, Global News raised the fearful side of success with an article whose headline screams, Google’s “20th anniversary raises questions over whether the company is too powerful”:

That resounding success now has regulators and lawmakers around the world questioning whether the company has become too powerful as its ubiquitous services vacuum up sensitive information about billions of people hooked on its products.

Google’s search engine remains entrenched as the internet’s main gateway, and its digital advertising business is on pace to generate about $110 billion in revenue this year. Much of that revenue now flows through Google’s Android operating system, which powers 80 percent of the world’s smartphones. Google also runs the biggest video site in YouTube, the most popular web browser in Chrome, the top email service in Gmail and the maps that most people use to get around.

Still, a company could do a lot worse than grow to a size that makes people uneasy. Global News goes on to concede: 

Not bad for a company that started 20 years ago … with an initial investment of $100,000. Google and its sibling companies operating under the umbrella of Alphabet Inc. are now worth $800 billion.

Overall, I’d have to agree. Google has done pretty well for a 20-year-old.

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