In the autumn of 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both distinguished Stanford University PhD students, embarked on a journey that would change everyone’s life. They ventured into the world of search engines and launched what would eventually metamorphose into a multibillion-dollar conglomerate.
Their venture represented a genuine paradigm shift in the realm of information access. In other words, it revolutionized the way we do research. Instead of perusing tons of books and papers, we have an opportunity to obtain all the information we need in just a few clicks.
But how has Google transformed access to information? And will it continue to change, given the emergence of generative artificial intelligence?
Meet me at a library
The 1950s witnessed an era where public libraries assumed the mantle of community hubs. In the post-World War II landscape, people perceived a thriving post-war city to be capable of proficiently delivering civic services. The paramount component was unfettered access to information.
During this era, the primary purveyors of information in Western societies were local libraries. These institutions were equipped with “human search engines,” i.e., librarians. They fielded telephone queries from businesses, diligently responded to written correspondence, and expedited the retrieval of accurate information.
Libraries, in essence, transcended their roles as mere repositories of books. They emerged as the go-to resource for parents seeking health information, tourists in quest of travel insights, and businesses in pursuit of strategic marketing guidance.
Yet, it is imperative to underscore that this pursuit of information was not devoid of labor-intensive and catalog-centric processes. Questions that we presently resolve within moments would routinely necessitate hours, days, or even weeks of diligent research.
Paid search services coming to life
Fast-forward to the 1990s, a pronounced shift was underway with the proliferation of paid search services. Libraries adapted to the digital age, incorporating personal computers and online access to information services. Commercial search enterprises burgeoned, and libraries became subscribers to their offerings, making information more accessible, albeit at a fiscal cost.
One notable exemplar of this era was Dialog, developed by Lockheed Martin in the 1960s. It boasted access to over 1.7 billion records dispersed across more than 140 databases teeming with peer-reviewed scholarly literature. Another noteworthy entrant, FT PROFILE by The Financial Times, enabled access to articles covering every major UK newspaper over a five-year span.
Nonetheless, interacting with these systems was by no means a straightforward endeavor. They demanded acumen and familiarity. Users had to memorize specific commands, select collections judiciously, and employ precise vocabulary to analyze the avalanche of documents. Articles were typically sorted chronologically and required manual scrutiny to isolate the most pertinent content.
Needless to say, this enhanced accessibility came at a considerable price. In the 1990s, using these systems incurred costs amounting to £1.60 per minute – a sum equivalent to £4.65 (or $5.87) in contemporary currency terms.
The birth of Google
With the emergence of the internet in 1993, the digital landscape witnessed an exponential growth of websites. Once again, people relied on libraries as they played a pivotal role. Namely, they offered public access to the internet. Librarians assumed the role of educators and taught users the art of obtaining information online. However, the intricate search systems of the era grappled with the burgeoning volumes of online content and the surge in new users.
In 1994, the book Managing Gigabytes, authored by three computer scientists hailing from New Zealand, presented pioneering solutions to this mounting predicament. Since the 1950s, the concept of a rapid, universally accessible search engine that could proficiently categorize documents by relevance had tantalized researchers.
It was during the 1990s that a Silicon Valley startup embarked on applying these insights. Larry Page and Sergey Brin ingeniously integrated the principles elucidated in “Managing Gigabytes” into the foundational architecture of Google.
On the momentous day of September 4, 1998, Google was launched, setting the wheels of a revolution into motion. Users were enamored by the simplicity of its search box and the innovative presentation of results, which succinctly summarized the alignment between retrieved pages and the user’s query.
Google Search’s efficacy was underpinned by several key factors. It introduced a groundbreaking approach that assessed web links within a page. Such a process was dubbed PageRank. More significantly, its algorithm exhibited a remarkable level of sophistication. It not only matched search queries with the textual content within a page but also scrutinized other text linking to that page. This concept is known as anchor text.
The ascendancy of Google was swift, eclipsing competitors such as AltaVista and Yahoo Search. To this day, Google maintains its dominance with over 85% of the search engine market share.
The next 25 years: What lies ahead?
Google has transcended the confines of search – it’s no longer a search engine only. The company now includes Gmail, Google Drive, Google Calendar, Pixel devices, and a plethora of other services in its offering, underscoring the extent of its reach.
The advent of AI tools, including Google’s Bard and the recently unveiled Gemini (a direct competitor to ChatGPT), heralds a forthcoming revolution in the realm of search. As Google continues to seamlessly integrate generative AI capabilities into Search, the way we retrieve information is bound to change. Users will become accustomed to perusing concise information summaries at the summit of search results.
However, a critical challenge looms – the risk that users will unquestioningly trust the information generated by AI algorithms. The importance of fact-checking against original sources remains as imperative as ever. The proliferation of generative AI tools, exemplified by ChatGPT, has brought to light instances of “hallucinations” and misinformation, highlighting the need for vigilance.
To celebrate its birthday on September 12, Google is rolling out enticing deals on its European online storefronts. While the precise lineup of discounted products remains shrouded in mystery, it’s worth noting that just last month, Google marked its birthday in Japan by extending a generous 25% price cut across an array of offerings. These included the Pixel 7 series, Pixel Tablet, Pixel Buds A-series, Buds Pro, Pixel Watch, Nest Hub 2nd Gen, Chromecast 4K, Nest Wi-Fi router, and Nest Cam.
This year’s European sale is expected to follow suit, promising alluring discounts spanning a diverse range of Google products. Although details are still unknown, customers can anticipate substantial savings on an assortment of coveted Google devices and accessories.
Notably, this sales extravaganza may harmonize with Google’s strategy to clear inventory in preparation for the impending launch of the Pixel 8 series and, potentially, the Pixel Watch 2. Both gadgets are rumored to make their debut on October 4. By extending discounts on existing product lines, Google not only creates space for fresh releases but also ignites excitement among its discerning customer base.