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Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National
Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National

Newsmaker: How Google is still getting top results

Why Google is the internet company corporate America loves.

There's an old wives' tale that if you "google" Google, the internet breaks. Silly stuff. In reality, a trapdoor opens and you fall into infinity.

In Cyberspace, Google extends as far as the eye can see, beginning with those familiar letters in their nursery colours. Blue, red, yellow, blue, green, red again. Top of the list of search returns is Google itself,com, the beginning and end of all things. Below is the first of what the search engine helpfully records as "about" 13,880,000,000 results.

Google Maps, which will not only show you an address, but can drop you outside a photograph of your intended destination.

Google Translate, which can take a phrase from one language and in an instanttarjamatuhu ila lugha okhra (with varying degrees of accuracy).

Google Images - as it says "the most comprehensive image search on Earth" - and Google News, which brings you everything from the Times of India to the Nome Nugget (how do I know there is a Nome Nugget? How do you think?)

Next are some of regional varieties, including dot UAE, of course. About 150 at the latest count, in 40 languages. And Google docs which means you can access anything from next week's planning schedule to that unfinished best-seller from any computer in the world. Then Gmail, which has 425 million users worldwide.

Google books, Google videos, Google recipes, (spam anyone?). Picasa, which stores all your photos, Scholar, a research archive of papers and journals. And on and on for "about" 1,388,000,000 pages.

Sometimes it seems you just can't get away from Google. Unless you own an iPhone 5. Or live in Iran. Or choose to take part in a two-day boycott called this week as a protest over the search engine's refusal to remove the ineptly blasphemous Innocence of Muslims video from YouTube, the video hosting service Google bought for US$1.65 billion (Dh6.06bn) six years ago.

In the week of its 14th birthday, there are signs of rebellion against the Google Empire. Not just the Ayatollah Ali Khameini, after Iran blocked Google for its position over Innocence of Muslims, but the mighty Apple Inc., which has decided to drop Google Maps from after launching its own rival (and for many, decidedly inferior service) with the new iPhone. Talk about a clash of civilisations.

Back in the day, Google and Apple were a couple of crazy kids who grew up on the same block. Apple was founded by Steve Jobs in Menlo Park, California in 1976. Google was registered by Larry Page and Sergey Brin at a friend's garage in Menlo Park in 1997. According to Google Maps, the two destinations are 15.9 miles apart, or 23 minutes driving time if you take Interstate 280.

Now it seems this town isn't big enough for both of them. There just isn't enough cool to go around in Silicon Valley. There's been some hard hitting talk. Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google says that the media are "obsessed with Apple's marketing events and Apple's branding."

On the issue of maps he lashes out that: "We think it would have been better if they had kept ours. But what do I know?" Apple has launched a number of lawsuits against Samsung over its Android operating system for mobile phones which was developed by Google. Those in the know say this is a "sidelong attack" on Google. This is what it is like when nerds go to war. Latte will be spilt.

Android's the problem. There was a time when the two companies played nice. Apple made cool gadgets and Google found interesting stuff to read on them. Then came Android, an operating system first funded and then purchased by Google in 2005. Android is an open source system, which means anyone can use it, free of charge. Other systems, like say, OS X, which belongs to Apple, will cost you.

Since most computers come with preloaded operating systems - Windows from Microsoft or OS for Apple, this wasn't a great threat at first. But the rise of the smart phone has seen more and more companies adopt Android systems, such as Samsung or LG, developing their own apps (which is where the money is these days.) Apple thinks some of the features of Android breach its copyright, which is why there have been a lot of lawsuits ending in many zeros. Battle has been joined.

Younger readers may be shocked to know that there once was a time Before Google. Delving into web history BG, is like reading about dinosaurs. AltaVista, which dates from 2BG (1997), was swallowed by Yahoo.

Remember Dogpile, which pulled in results from other search engines and was voted best Residential Online Search Engine in 2007 but now ranks 2,548 in the world? Or Hotbot, which is not, and Excite, which doesn't do much these days. You can Ask Jeeves why nobody asks him any more.

Google was just another name in a crowded field when it first appeared at the end of 1998. The story is pretty well-known. Page, a geek from Michigan, and Brin, whose family emigrated from the old Soviet Union, were a couple of brainy doctorate students who first met at Stanford University in 1996 while working on a digital library.

Together they developed an algorithm that allowed them to rank pages on the World Wide Web by relative importance. The embryonic search engine was first called "BackRub" because it checked stuff called back links to see if a site was important.

Later they changed the name to Google, which is a deliberate misspelling of a googol, a number that is the digit 1, followed by 100 zeroes. The idea was to spell out that Google would find you a lot of information.

The company was incorporated on September 4, 1998, using the garage of a friend, Susan Wojcicki, who lived in Melmo Park, a white bread suburb of greater San Francisco. The first employee was Craig Silverstein, another Stanford old boy. By December, PC Magazine had made Google its top search engine for 1998. Long story short. By May 2011, the company reported that the number of unique users had gone above one billion for the first time.

After borrowing her garage, Brin later married Wojcicki's sister Anne. She is now listed as the 25th most powerful woman in the world. Her husband has a personal wealth estimated at US$18.7 billion, as does Page. Silverstein, who has since left the company to found his own company, is worth US$950 million.

Brin and Page now have their personal Boeing 767 personal jet, with exclusive rights to land at Nasa's Moffet Feild airbase.

Then there's the really fun stuff. The first Google doodle was designed as an out-of-office reply when all those hipsters went off to the Burning Man festival in 1998. The company employed a personal chef who had previously cooked for the Grateful Dead and now has a rule that no employee must be 100 feet from a snack. It has a herd of goats to keep down the grass at Googleplex, the übercool company HQ in Mountain View, Palo Alto which also has model of a Tyranosaurus Rex in the grounds.

Sometimes it seems that Google is more play than work. Aren't all the staff told to spend 20 per cent of their not working on Google projects? A journalist recalls interviewing a senior Google employee just as the company was in the advanced stages of the Andriod phone project. The man, he recalled, had a Nordic sounding name and a large beard, while they talked perched uncomfortably on bean bags.

At one point, a door opened and a youth in jeans and distressed T-shirt glided past on a skateboard, pausing only to wave a brief apology before departing through another portal.

"It's just the type of place it is," was the interviewee's not entirely convincing response.

The journalist was never sure if the moment was unscripted or a deliberate attempt to reinforce the company's freewheeling reputation. Because behind all the fun and games is a serious business model.

Google's current stock price hit a record US$749.53 this week. Unlike other internet darlings such as Facebook and Twitter, the company has a clear revenue stream, even if its own venture into social media, Google+, is generally felt to be something of a damp squib. Last year the company generated $38 billion from ads, with expectations that its US display advertising revenue alone will rise by nearly 40 per cent this year.

All those ads, which appear above the regular search results, have inevitably dented Google's edgy appeal. Nor has its Street View project been universally embraced, with objections in some countries to the invasion of privacy, and a ban in the Czech Republic.

Its subsidiary, Google China, was set up in 2005, with the company agreeing to allow the Chinese government to censor results. After five years of protests, the company announced it was transferring operations to Hong Kong, where the internet is uncensored. What must have hurt most was all the ironic mockery of its motto: "Don't Do Evil."

There have been other complaints; that the Google Books project - to digitalise millions of books - is a breach of copyright. Others are unhappy that Gmail apparently scans the contents of emails for the purpose of advertising product placement. Away from the model dinosaurs, the company employs an army of accountants to minimise its corporate tax bill. In Britain, Google paid £6 million on a turnover of £395 million last year, with calls for parliament to investigate.

Despite all this Google rolls on. Its email service attracts 15 million new users every month. Earlier this year it was voted America's most popular technology company. Around the world, the search engine is used by more than five out of ten people on the internet. Its new Google Glasses project will one day project information in front of your eyes. How do I know this? How do you think?

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