How Google changed all of our lives
Published 23/08/2008 | 00:00
Ten years ago a pair of students at Stanford University tried to sell a new internet search engine they'd developed. American Larry Page and Russian Sergey Brin reckoned that they'd come up with a system that was quicker and more user-friendly than anything available, but when they pitched their invention at AltaVista, Excite, Yahoo! and the other big players of cyberspace, there were no takers.
Although Yahoo! declined to invest in the new search engine, that company's founder advised Page and Brin to give up their studies and develop their idea as a business. In September 1998, they founded the company Google, recruiting a college friend as their lone employee. Today, the company is valued at tens of billions of dollars and employs almost 20,000 people worldwide, including 1,500 at their European headquarters in the heart of Dublin. In the space of 10 short years, the term 'Google' has become so wed to the world of the internet that it has even entered the English language as the verb 'to Google'.
So what is the secret of Google's phenomenal success?
"Simplicity," answers Darren Connolly of the company's Dublin base. He explains: "The key thing from the outset was to keep everything simple. If you look at the Google home page it's very clean and uncluttered. Type in a query and Google gets you there the quickest way."
Google opened its Irish operation in 2003, with five people manning an office on Earlsfort Terrace. Connolly says: "We needed an office outside the United States to serve customers on this side of the world in their own language and their own timezone. We now have over 45 nationalities working in our building on Barrow Street, because what works for a customer in France might not work for one in Bulgaria."
Many of the staff in Dublin work in advertising, which generates revenues of more than €1bn worldwide a year. Connolly says: "Advertisers bid for the right to use key words. So someone who owns a small hotel in Kerry might bid to buy the words 'staying in Kerry'. The beauty is that you can start advertising your business within 10 minutes of opening your account."
The company's American headquarters is named The Googleplex in homage to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, of which Page and Brin are fans. (The term 'google' itself is a deliberate mis-spelling of 'googol' which stands for the number 10 to the power of 100.) From the outset, the company has branded itself as a fun place to work, and staff facilities in the Googleplex include a piano, a gym, a free laundry service, two swimming pools, a volleyball court, 11 restaurants and a dinosaur skeleton.
On several occasions, Fortune magazine has lauded Google as the best workplace in the world. Connolly believes that the company's Irish branch also merits that distinction. He says: "A big factor in providing people with job satisfaction is that the work environment is one of collaboration and allowing people to work to their potential. The workplace structure is not hierarchical. It's a broad and flat structure. People are not assigned their positions based on age or experience, but on their aptitude and appetite for the work."
He elaborates: "There is a great deal of flexibility to move within the company, which is attractive to a young and well-educated workforce looking for a challenge. Everyone's job is reviewed on a quarterly basis."
In keeping with the company's declared ethos of promoting fun, staff are actively encouraged to observe April Fool's Day each year. In 2000, the company announced that it had developed a new search method called the MentalPlex, which harnessed the user's brainwaves and negated the need to use the keypad.
In a 2002 hoax, the company revealed that its high-speed searches were carried out by its PigeonRank system, which involved thousands of pigeons who'd been trained to "compute the relative value of web pages faster than human editors or machine-based algorithms".
In 2001, a group of Google staff came together with the express purpose of finding a motto that expressed the company's values. One of them, Amit Patel, recalled that the think-tank quickly got bogged down with slogans, from the specific "Be In Time For Meetings", to the aspirational "Treat Everyone With Respect". Patel said: "Some of us were very anti-corporate and we didn't like the idea of all these specific rules." At this point, one executive, Paul Buchheit, intervened and said: "All of these things can be covered with the three words 'Don't Be Evil'."
Page and Brin seized on the three words and used "Don't Be Evil" to brand Google as one of the good guys of the corporate world. The company has pledged one percent of its annual profits to a range of projects, ranging from the development of clean energy sources to the provision of healthcare in the Third World.
But the slogan "Don't Be Evil" has become something of a rod for Google's back. In 2006, the company was accused of putting corporate greed above principle when it set up a new Chinese site, Google.cn, which operates a policy of heavy self-censorship in order to comply with the demands of the Beijing authorities.
Challenged at a press conference that the company had broken its own cardinal rule, Google's unapologetic CEO Eric Schmidt contested that the giant had merely chosen the lesser of two evils. He argued: "We concluded that, although we weren't wild about the restrictions, it was even worse to not try to serve those users at all. We actually did an evil scale and decided that not to serve at all was the worse evil."
Two years later, Darren Connolly says: "There was a lot of internal debate, but the view reached was that our mission is to bring search facilities to people around the world and it's better to bring some level of search than none at all. Censored results are clearly marked as censored."
With the worldwide market still rapidly expanding, there's no pall of recession hanging over Google's Dublin HQ.
"We're still growing," says Connolly. "Right now, there's over 100 job positions open at our online centre. Our centre is now covering users from Ireland to the Urals, from Reykjavik to Cape Town."