Most of us are dependent on Google as the first point of call when searching for information. It’s interesting that the Google we know today (a $170 billion company) almost never existed if the founders had gotten their way. For those old enough to remember, there was a time when Google was not the search engine of choice. The internet was littered with many search engines such as Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, AltaVista, Lycos, Excite, Infoseek, Hotbot, AllTheWeb, etc.
Google started in 1996 as a research project by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two Stanford University PhD students. The two founders quickly realised that Google had great potential as it gained popularity on campus. They had to decide whether to finish their graduate studies or drop out to focus on growing Google as a business. They were not initially keen to start an internet company hence they approached three of the top search engines (Excite, Yahoo and AltaVista) about buying the Google technology for $1 million dollars. They all passed on the opportunity to acquire Google.
It is reported that Page and Brin were even willing to take $750,000 from Excite but the CEO still wasn’t interested. I bet all the executives who passed on Google regret the fact that they missed such a great opportunity to acquire Google for peanuts. Excite and AltaVista are no longer in business, while Yahoo’s search engine is struggling. I believe there are two reasons why Google thrived while the other search engines faded into oblivion.
(1) Focus – By the end of the 1990’s, the trend was for all the search engines to become web portals but Google refused to jump on this portal bandwagon. Google never tried to be everything to everyone initially. They simply did one thing and did it well. They focused on their strength and their strength was search. This focus enabled Google to develop a better search technology which soon positioned the company ahead of its competitors. The other search engine companies never really believed ‘search’ was going to be a huge revenue earner thus they provided lots of other services (email, horoscopes, online shopping, news, stock quotes etc) in hopes of making money. These services diluted their focus.
(2) Design – The Google founders made sure that the Google home page had a clean design, was simple for users and clutter free in comparison to other search engines. This ensured that the home page loaded quickly. You have to remember that in late 1990’s and early 2000’s, broadband wasn’t available and most people used dial-up connections which was very slow and expensive because people paid by the minute. According to Fast Company magazine, “great design is a prerequisite for turning consumers into customers”. The home page still has the same design philosophy in 2011 that it did in the 1990’s.
The power of focus and design are the hallmarks of great innovative companies. These were strategic decisions taken by the Google founders during the early days of their company and it has benefited Google greatly.
Check out what some of these search engines looked like in 1999 courtesy of the Internet Archive website: