Exactly 12 years ago today, the company Google was formed by two Stanford University students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. A dozen years on, and their little enterprise is everywhere, having entered the language and provided people the world over with indispensable search tools – a kind of map for modern life that we all need in order to get where we are going. In the late 1990s there were several respected search engines (remember Infoseek or Altavista, anyone?), but within a very short space of time they had all pretty much disappeared.
And of course, a company as large as Google, and with so little apparent competition, must also be looked at closely to see what it is doing. Since you and I use Google entirely free of charge, you might wonder what creates all that shareholder value. And once you start looking at it that way, the commercial essence of Google is not based on providing searches, but rather being an advertising agency. All over every Google page you look at it subtle advertising, some of it based on the electronic analysis of what you are searching and what you are writing. And Google is also engaged in a competition with Apple, as its Android operating system for mobile devices goes head-to-head with the iPhone.
Google has an academic background, and from an academic perspective it has become a vital tool: its search function, Google Scholar, the digitisation of books – all of this has placed Google at the heart of the academic experience.
Alongside the useful, even vital, functionality Google has, its size is on the other hand vaguely scary, and its near monopoly status in searches should perhaps be a little troubling. Though I like what it offers, I also make sure that, at least every so often, I use the competitors who offer something reasonably good also: Yahoo, or Bing, for example. Keeping Google to a reasonable scale is a way of ensuring that it also stays useful.