The Reinterpretation of Google History

May 27, 2016

I read “Why Google Beat yahoo in the War for the Internet.” The information in the article touches upon some important points; for example, Google focused on a more homogeneous infrastructure. The history of Google, however, includes some tactical moves which the article ignores.

My enthusiasm for recycling the information about Google’s first five years has shriveled since I published the third volume of my Google trilogy. I want to point out several factoids which, no doubt, will interest few today. The article makes much of what is described as a “fresh start.” I do not agree with the “fresh” part.

First, Google is a descendent of Alta Vista, Jon Kleinberg’s Clever, and the information access research conducted at Stanford University and other universities with an interest in this technical field. As a result, the infrastructure benefits from Digital Equipment’s investment in its Alta Vista system. Much of that “knowledge” migrated to Google as Messrs. Brin and Page hired notable professionals away from the chaos of Alta Vista under Hewlett Packard’s management. Jeff Dean, Simon Tong, and others are responsible for much of the infrastructure for Google. The Alta Vista system was anchored in the DEC technology. The memory management benefits were obtained at a cost. Google embraced commodity hardware and a big chunk of the Alta Vista thinking. Fresh? Well, sort of.

Second, Google’s scrutiny of Yahoo had a couple of payoffs. Yahoo was a crazy quilt of warring tribes. Each tribe had its own technology idols. Google interpreted this as expensive and focused on reducing the costs by standardizing on systems and methods to a greater degree than Yahoo did. Over time, Yahoo became more sluggish due to its different fiefdoms. Google was comparatively stronger due to its less chaotic approaches. Don’t get me wrong. Google in its first five years was a wild and crazy outfit. Yahoo was wilder and crazier. As part of Google’s learning from Yahoo, Google recognized the value of selling ads the Yahoo way. Yahoo was unhappy with Google’s borrowing of its approach. Google settled a legal spat with about $1 billion in payments to the Yahooligans. But the majority of Google’s revenue comes from that me too play.

Third, Google, like Yahoo, is not sure what it will be from year to year. The difference is that Google has crafted a relatively consistent flow of advertising revenue from its early and somewhat crude pre-Oingo days. Google integrated acquired technologies more effectively than Yahoo typically did. The ability to integrate provided Google an important edge.

There are other touchpoints in Google’s early days. From my point of view, Google is from its inception a beneficiary of good luck because the competitors in Web search were distracted in an effort to become portals. Google, as I see the company, is less of an innovator and more of an emulator. Google has yet to demonstrate that renaming the company, reorganizing the units, and funding projects like cheating death will yield the next big thing.

Google, for me, was a one off, an anomaly.

Stephen E Arnold, May 27, 2016


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