When Larry & Sergey launched Google in 1998, they had no idea their fledgling company would become a global sensation and even become a verb found in the dictionary. Today, it’s difficult to avoid the behemoth’s extensive reach in your daily life, from checking email or talking on the phone to getting driving directions or even searching for holiday gift ideas. Despite a long history and high public profile, there are still many unusual facts about Google that escape daily dialogue and can provide lessons for marketers.
1. Humble Beginnings (to build upon). The earliest iteration of Google’s search engine algorithm was stored on ten 4 gigabyte hard drives (basically about the same storage as a low-end smartphone today). Larry and Sergey were both cost-conscious and practical. As a result, they built the storage tower for the hard drives out of Legos to make expansion easier. You can see the original tower on display at Stanford University today. Since then, Google has built one of the largest computers in the world. Google reminds us marketers to think in terms of low-cost initial investment, yet provide a foundation that allows for scalability across marketing campaigns and strategies.
2. Search and Destroy (the competition). Understand Google’s history to inform your marketing. John Battelle’s The Search provided more insights into how and why Google works than any other technical book I read in the early years. A key insight from the book: the underlying concept behind Google’s BackRub algorithm was inspired by the graduate students’ need to secure citations for senior dissertations from noted professors. Larry and Sergey determined search results would be more relevant based on ‘citations’ or inbound links, which are equivalent to votes. From there, Google has evolved the algorithm significantly to better address the impact of social media, advertising, spam, mobile and user experience. That said, inbound links and citations remain a significant component of the algorithm.
3. Common Goals (for common good). When I first started my career in search engine optimization (SEO) in 1996, there was a good deal of contention between designers (who liked to control the user experience graphically (instead of using HTML text), developers (who either wanted to cut corners or over-build websites with bloated code) and copywriters (who preferred to write flowery prose (instead of keyword-infused copy). In those early years, my SEO initiatives always took a back seat in discussions about user experience (think frames and Flash) vs. ensuring the website was visible to search engines (via keyword-infused code and copy). My job was made more difficult by far too many SEO consultants choosing to cheat their way into top rankings. Much has changed since then. While Google is still trying to display the most relevant search results possible, its algorithm is much more sophisticated, and puts higher weighting on exceptional user experiences. As a result, Google now rewards websites that are well-designed with clean code and unique copy (where context carries more weight). SEO professionals are now an integral member of the website development team and are treated as peers instead of crazy cousins. As such, Marketers that understand SEO needs to be part of the discussion early and often, when it comes to website development, are ahead of the game.
4. Deal or No Deal (flow). Google is multi-billion-dollar business today, but in the early years, even the founders couldn’t have guessed Google’s trajectory. In fact, in the early years, Larry and Sergey were interested in selling the company. In 1997, Yahoo! turned down a $2 million offer to purchase Google’s search platform. Deeply ironic considering Yahoo! then offered $3 billion dollars a few years later, only to turn around and sell themselves at a bargain price this year. In 1999, Google approached Excite to sell for a mere $1 million, but the CEO rejected the offer. Excite cratered a few years after that. Google is now valued at over $400 billion. Marketers must remember that timing is everything. Buy low, sell high, whether it be your business or gutter repair services.
5. Build AND Buy (technology). Since 2010, Google has averaged one company acquisition per week. That is nearly six years of weekly acquisitions of technology to enhance and improve Google’s ability to deliver quality content and experiences. Some of the most notable acquisitions during that time period include: Picasa, Urchin Software Corporation (Google Analytics), Android (OS), YouTube, DoubleClick, Zagat, Quickoffice (Google Docs), Waze (real-time traffic for Maps). As marketers, we are smart to stay on top of deal flow to anticipate which technologies or features we can expect to see incorporated into the Google suite in the coming months.
6. Ups and Downs (service). Google is such a core component of the Internet experience that the Web is literally crippled without it. On August 16, 2013, Google’s website went down for five minutes. During that brief time period, global Internet usage decreased by 40 percent. This is a good reminder to protect your website from internal and external threats and broaden your marketing efforts beyond the Google suite to mitigate risk and maximize performance.
7. Not Feeling So Lucky (in search). For many years, the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button took Google searchers directly to the most relevant page, as determined by the algorithm. That feature was finally phased out with the advent of Google Instant Search. Perhaps a bigger incentive than evolving technology to remove the button was the fact that “I’m Feeling Lucky” cost Google $110 million each year, as it bypassed the ads entirely. Sometimes, business decisions are based on revenue and can take some of the fun and mystery away from a brand. The challenge we face as marketers is to balance the need for a brand to maintain its uniqueness without compromising financial health.
8. Don’t Worry, Be Happy (with your visibility). As mentioned previously, Google’s number one goal is to keep its users happy by providing the best possible search results. This applies to paid search results (aka AdWords) as much as organic search results. As a result, there are times when your text ads do not show up in targeted search results (regardless of how high your bid is set). This is because Google has determined your ad (or messaging) is not the best match and they are willing to forgo the incremental revenue in order to prioritize a more relevant ad. This is especially true for informational-based queries. Marketers need to practice both patience and persistence in optimizing ad campaigns, from keywords and ad copy to offer and landing page design. In the end, you may end up paying less for a click with a more relevant ad than your competitor.
9. Take Care of Business (school). Larry and Sergey developed the BackRub algorithm while attending Stanford, which made it property of the University. As a result, Google negotiated a long-term license for BackRub with Stanford in exchange for $1.8 million worth of shares in Google. That license has since generated more than $300 million in income for Stanford. As marketers, we benefit from taking care of those that take care of us, whether that be employees, partners, vendors, investors or in Google’s case, educational institutions. Whether it be cash, equity or a simple hand-written thank you card, don’t forget your people.
10. Cover All Your Bases (make lemonade). From the very beginning, Google adapted quickly. In fact, one of the early investors misspelled the original name of the company, Googol, but instead of correcting the name on the check, they adopted it. Nowadays, Google is such a commonly-typed word in search bars that the company has purchased common misspellings of the name, including www.gooogle.com, www.gogle.com and www.googlr.com. Similarly, Google has figured out a clever way to circumvent firewalls in unfriendly countries like China by creating a mirror site: http://elgoog.im/. The site is a mirrored/reversed version of the old Google website, and as a result, the text doesn’t register in most firewalls and can be used just like a regular search engine where the normal Google site is blocked. Google reminds marketers to ensure you’ve protected your brand by buying and redirecting common misspellings. This is also a reminder to think globally with your marketing efforts, including traditionally challenging countries and markets.
My hope is that the above facts about Google and the associated lessons for marketers are of value and inspire new digital marketing strategies and tactics for 2021. Feel free to add your fun Google facts or lessons in the comments section below.
Kent Lewis is a co-founder and the first President of SEMpdx, a professional trade organization based in Portland, Oregon that provides educational opportunities for local businesses and individuals interested in a career in search engine marketing. To pay the bills, he plays the role of President of Anvil Media, Inc., where he is responsible for managing operations, marketing and business development to achieve the company’s mission: to build Anvil into the one of the most respected search engine marketing agencies in the world. In 2001, Lewis created pdxMindShare to build businesses and careers through networking and weekly emails featuring jobs and industry events. He is also an adjunct professor at Portland State University.