Internet giant Google is celebrating 15 years since its inception today, and is in better shape than ever. However, it is facing growing public concerns about so-called 'Big Brother' behaviour.
Originally called BackRub, the Internet search engine started in 1996 as a project of two Stanford University students – Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The two later split off from the University and, on 4 September 1998, incorporated the new company, changing the name of the product to Google – a playful misspelling of the word googol – a number followed by 100 zeros, evidently referencing the number of results the search engine provides.
At this time, Google was a tiny firm based in the garage of a friend of the two founders – insignificant in a market dominated at the time by giants like Yahoo and Altavista.
However, the search engine, presenting a simple plain white page with nothing but an oblong search box in the middle, soon took off with Internet users and climbed to the top, handling nearly 85 per cent of all search requests on the World Wide Web by 2004.
While conventional search engines ranked results by counting how many times a search term appeared on a page, Page’s and Brin’s system relied on analysing relationships between the websites – a basis of the PageRank concept, patented by Stanford University in the early years of the project.
By determining a website’s relevance and its importance by the number of pages linking back to it, Google’s search results seemed to be more relevant than those of its competitors.
From the garage-based firm, Google has grown over the 15 years into the world’s number one player, branching into other areas and creating products such as Google Maps, Streetview, the smartphone operating system Android or its own range of smart gadgets.
With 70 offices across the globe, Google’s position today seems unshakable. However, industry experts say that how long Google will manage to stay on the top will depend on its ability to set the pace in innovation.
"I am not surprised they have survived this far but if you're asking if they will survive until they are 25 or 30, that's another question," said Joseph Lampel, professor of strategy at Cass Business School, City University London.
"Google might not be able to maintain their level of dominance, if the industry opens up to competitors,” he said, explaining that especially Asian-based contenders could test Google’s position in the future
"The question also arises of the very function of Google. The search engine business will shift in the next decade into new technology and new devices," Lampel added.
Colin Cieszynski, senior market analyst at CMC Markets, said: "They've taken a lead in the second wave of success of the Internet, becoming the premier company. It's like there was a shake-up, and they're the ones who ended up on top. Yahoo has struggled along, but lots of others have fallen by the wayside.”
Recently, Google has been involved in several controversies including concerns about search ranking manipulation. It was also among the companies claimed to cooperate with US surveillance agencies on their global data-mining programmes, which has further stirred the on-going debate about privacy protection online.
According to a recent survey, almost two-thirds of Internet users are concerned about Google not respecting privacy rules.
Earlier this year, Google nearly faced criminal proceedings in the European Union, after personal data unlawfully collected by its Street View cars had been discovered. Though the company’s motto famously says ‘don’t be evil’, it’s practices have recently been increasingly questioned. In the UK, the company has been accused of tax evasion. Despite having a strong presence in the UK, Google claims handling all its commercial and sales activities in the country from Ireland, which offers better corporation tax conditions.