As an internet user today, you probably can‘t imagine life without Google. With its simple interface and lightning-fast results, Google has become the go-to search engine for finding everything from quick facts to in-depth research.
But have you ever wondered – who exactly invented Google? When did they launch the company, and how did they create the technology that dominates internet search today?
I was curious about the history behind one of the most influential companies in the modern world. So I did a deep dive on Google‘s early days. Read on to learn the fascinating story behind the two inventors who launched Google, the initial development of PageRank, and how Google ultimately rose to internet supremacy.
Page and Brin: From Stanford Students to Founders
Google‘s story starts back in 1995 at Stanford University, where two PhD students met and bonded over a shared passion – using computer science to organize and make sense of the rapidly growing internet.
Larry Page grew up in Michigan, where his father worked as a computer science professor at Michigan State University. From an early age, Page was immersed in the world of technology and computer code. At the University of Michigan, he built an inkjet printer out of Lego bricks and earned a degree in computer engineering.
Page then headed west to Stanford for graduate school, driven by his desire to find ways to expand access to information. As he describes it, "I figured more information would be a good thing. And more people having access to information would be a good thing."
Sergey Brin‘s path to Silicon Valley and computer science took a more perilous course. He was born in Moscow in the Soviet Union in 1973. When he was six years old, his family decided to flee the political turmoil and anti-semitism they faced. After spending several months living in cramped quarters in a Vienna refugee camp, the Brins were granted permission to immigrate to the United States.
They eventually settled in Maryland, where Brin‘s father found work as a math professor at the University of Maryland. Brin later attended undergrad there, double majoring in math and computer science. Stanford then recruited him away for its prestigious PhD program.
So Page and Brin crossed paths at Stanford in 1995, when Page toured the computer science department prior to joining the graduate program. The pair immediately hit it off thanks to their shared background and interest in using software to organize information on the web.
At the time, the internet was still in its infancy. While millions of web pages already existed, useful search tools to index all that information were sorely lacking. Page and Brin saw this as a problem ripe for solving.
From BackRub to Google: Creating a New Search Engine
In 1996, Page and Brin began collaborating on a search engine project they dubbed BackRub. Its unique approach relied on counting backlinks – links from other sites pointing back to a given web page.
Page realized that backlinks could serve as a gauge of relevance and importance. The more sites that linked back to a web page, the more likely that page contained valuable content worth surfacing in search results.
So Page and Brin devised ranking algorithms that analyzed backlinks, allowing their search technology to make judgments about the relevance of sites. This focus on backlinks formed the basis of PageRank – the technology that eventually propelled Google past rival search engines.
Page and Brin tapped Stanford‘s abundant computer engineering talent as they developed BackRub. One key early team member was Scott Hassan, a graduate student specializing in artificial intelligence. Hassan became a vital contributor, writing much of the software code that allowed the BackRub search engine to function.
By late 1997, Page and Brin decided their promising project needed a better name than BackRub. The word "googol" – referring to the number 1 followed by 100 zeros – inspired them. They liked the way the name reflected the enormous volume of information their search engine would have to sift through.
After checking that the domain Google.com was available, they registered it in September 1997. Google was officially born.
Launching Google and Advancing Search Technology
Page and Brin developed Google alongside their PhD studies into 1998. By then, they were crawling and indexing over 10 million web pages, offering a superior search experience compared to competing products like AltaVista and Excite.com.
To make Google freely accessible to more users, Page and Brin raised around $1 million from family, friends, and angel investors. With this funding secured, Google officially incorporated and launched its website google.com on September 4, 1998.
Google set up shop in Susan Wojcicki‘s garage at 232 Santa Margarita, Menlo Park – the quintessential Silicon Valley start-up headquarters. From these humble beginnings, Page and Brin continued refining their PageRank system and expanding Google‘s index size to stay ahead of the competition.
In 2000, Google made a breakthrough that put them on a course towards profitability – selling targeted text ads that could be matched to specific search keywords. This system evolved into the AdWords platform that today generates billions in annual revenue.
By 2000, Google was handling roughly 500 million search queries per day and reached 3 billion daily searches by 2003. Their technology could now return results in a tenth of a second. For perspective, top competitor AltaVista often took over 15 seconds to return far less comprehensive results.
Google‘s market share of search reflects this rapid divergence:
|Year||Google Market Share||AltaVista Market Share|
As Google‘s technology thrived, early contributors like Scott Hassan had moved on to other ventures. Meanwhile, Page and Brin tightened their grip on the company. When Google filed its initial public offering paperwork in 2004, Page and Brin made it clear they would remain firmly in control through supervoting shares.
Being Early Google Employees – In Their Own Words
To provide insight into Google‘s early days, here are a few quotes from early employees and investors:
"There was an overwhelming confidence and optimism about how Search was going to change the world for the better." – Craig Silverstein, Google‘s first employee
"We thought PageRank and backlinks were a big deal, but didn‘t realize at the time how much of a runaway success this would be." – Rajeev Motwani, Google investor and Stanford professor who mentored Page and Brin
"Larry would often say that if we just kept scaling up our infrastructure, the rest of the money would take care of itself." – Urs Hölzle, Google employee #8
On the Path to World Domination
After disrupting the search engine market, Google‘s hunger for expansion only grew. They gobbled up smaller startups like Blogger and YouTube, expanding their influence across the web.
Hitting $6 billion in annual revenue by 2006, Google was clearly no longer just a search company. So in 2015, Page and Brin spun out their core search business into a new entity called Alphabet, with Google as a subsidiary underneath it.
Today, Alphabet and Google sit atop one of the most valuable companies in the world, worth over $1 trillion. Google holds undisputed dominance in search, processing over 3.5 billion queries per day that equate to 1.2 trillion searches per year.
No wonder Google has become a ubiquitous verb meaning "to search the internet." When it comes to finding information online, for billions of people around the globe, there is simply no alternative.
The PageRank Algorithm: Google‘s Secret Sauce
But how exactly did Google manage to leave rival search engines in the dust? The key breakthrough was PageRank – the backlink-based ranking algorithm devised by Page and Brin.
PageRank works by counting the number of links pointing back to a given web page from other sites. This tally of backlinks acts as a vote of confidence, under the assumption that more links equates to a more relevant page.
But PageRank goes beyond just counting links. It also analyzes the quality of those links using metrics like:
The popularity of sites linking back – links from authoritative sites like CNN are given more value.
The number of links on a linking page – a page that only links to a few resources suggests stronger endorsement than links from link-heavy pages.
By combining link quantity with qualitative aspects, PageRank enabled Google to outperform other search engines relying on simpler link counting or human-curated results.
Early versions of PageRank determined rankings entirely based on backlinks. But today‘s Google search applies PageRank in conjunction with 200+ other signals, remaining the core of Google‘s secret search ranking sauce.
Page and Brin‘s PageRank discovery revolutionized search and remains integral to Google today, over 20 years later.
The World Before Google: "Finding a Needle in a Million Haystacks"
It may be hard to imagine today, but internet search was a frustrating endeavor in the pre-Google era.
Results often failed to surface the most relevant pages while leading search engines struggled with spam sites trying to game the system. Former Yahoo executive Srinija Srinivasan described search back then as "finding a needle in a million haystacks."
Page and Brin envisioned something better. Their focus on relevance over simple keyword matching led to a "search that understands" what people are actually looking for.
This made exploring the internet through Google a revelatory experience back in the late 90s. Longtime tech writer Steven Levy captured the transformative nature of early Google in his book In the Plex:
“It was so obviously superior to everything else. It let you search better, simultaneously demonstrating its own power and your own intelligence. In the confusing early days of the Web, that psychic boost meant a lot.”
Google search offered clarity in navigating the nascent internet. And it was all thanks to Page and Brin finding an ingenious way to harness the power of the growing web‘s own hyperlinks.
The Business Side: How Google Finds Profits
While Page and Brin prioritized developing technology over business in Google‘s early years, their innovations laid the groundwork for incredible profitability.
Google‘s core business model relies on showing targeted text ads alongside search results. These ads are precisely matched to the search keywords entered by users.
For example, if you search for "hotel deals," you might see ads for Expedia or Booking.com. Advertisers bid in an auction system to have their ads appear. And they pay Google only when users actually click on the ads.
This cost-per-click model has been massively lucrative for Google, which gets paid while providing useful ads that searchers often want. Advertising dollars made up over 80% of Alphabet‘s billions in 2021 revenues.
Google had the foresight early on to realize that relying on search ads would allow them to keep search free for users. Page said this user focus was crucial to Google‘s success:
“We have tried to make all our products useful and free for users. This is actually good for business in the long run. Given a choice, consumers will flock to services that don’t charge them yet provide enormous value.”
It‘s an approach that has clearly driven results, with Google‘s ad revenues skyrocketing from $19 billion in 2006 to over $180 billion in 2021.
Conclusion: Page and Brin‘s Search Revolution
What started as a research project in a Stanford dorm room revolutionized the internet and forged one of the most successful companies ever.
While contributions from early teammates can‘t be discounted, Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin stand as the founding inventors of Google.
Driven by a vision of making the world‘s information more accessible, Page and Brin devised an innovative PageRank algorithm that overtook existing search engines. Since evolving from its start as BackRub in 1996, Google has become the gatekeeper to finding anything on the internet.
So the next time you effortlessly look up facts online or research a topic, thank Page and Brin for inventing the search technology that makes it possible!