Google went from a simple webpage to an ubiquitous internet giant in 23 years

Google went from a simple webpage to an ubiquitous internet giant in 23 years

Knowledge is power, and in this modern digital age, one company shapes the entire world’s knowledge more than any other — Google. With the exception of mainland China, where Google is banned, the NorCal tech giant’s search engine is used in over 87% of desktop computers and 94% of mobile devices worldwide, according to research firm Statista.

It can’t be overstated the degree to which Google’s utter dominance of the online search has upended entire industries and how they operate. For most websites, a big bulk of traffic comes from search results, and research has shown that the first five or six results on Google Search grab more than 60% of the clicks. In other words, Google’s search results can make or break a website’s traffic, and by extension, entire digital businesses like online media or e-commerce sites.

This is why advertising on Google has been so lucrative — the tech giant raked in $150 billion in advertising revenue in 2020, which made up 80% of the company’s overall revenue. Today, Google is worth a trillion dollars. Its utter dominance influencing which website gets shown has led to scrutiny from lawmakers in its home country and abroad.

And to think, Google started as an unassuming, somewhat generic-looking website back on September 4th, 1998. As we approach Google’s 23rd birthday, here’s a look back at some milestones and how the company became the unescapable, ubiquitous, pervasive Goliath it is today.

August 1996: Larry Page and Sergey Brin launches Goo… uh … BackRub

The internet behemoth we know as Google today began as a college dissertation by then-Stanford Ph.D. student Larry Page, who wanted to explore the mathematical properties of the internet, specifically how linking structures work. Using the idea that university research papers often had to list citations, Page conceived a system that rewarded websites that were frequently “cited” a.k.a. being linked to.

Fellow Stanford student Sergey Brin soon joined the project, and the two developed the PageRank algorithm that ranked websites by not just the number of links citing them, but also the quality of those links. The pair gave the search engine, which still only ran on Stanford’s servers at the time, the unfortunate name “BackRub”.

Here’s the thing, BackRub was not the first internet search engine. Yahoo, also founded by Stanford alums, was already active and dominant at the time. But Page and Brin’s idea to use an automated algorithm to scour the entire internet and rank pages by quality and quantity of backlinks was far more efficient than Yahoo’s method, which used physical staff to list an index of websites. Of course, nobody knew Google’s method was far superior then.

September 1998: Google goes official

Google in 1998.

How Google’s homepage looked in 1998. Source: Web Design Museum

Page and Brin changed BackRub’s name to Google (after the mathematical term “googol” meaning one, followed by 100 zeroes) sometime in 1997, and officially registered Google.com on September 17th, 1997, but it wasn’t until September 4th of the next year did Google become an official company. So, September 4 is the day most media, including XDA, use as Google’s official birthday.

June 2000: Yahoo concedes Google’s search solution is better

Although Yahoo was still highly valuable and leading ahead of Google in search engine market share in 2000, Yahoo executives realized their index-based approach could not keep up with the fast-growing vast internet. And on June 26th, 2000, Yahoo announced it would be using Google’s search engine.

But Yahoo wasn’t accepting defeat. It merely saw the partnership with Google as a temporary one while Yahoo worked to rebuild its own search engine.

Summer 2002: Google rejects Yahoo’s offer to buy the company outright for $3 billion

According to Wired, Yahoo CEO Terry Semel offered $3 billion to acquire Google entirely in the summer of 2002. Google refused the offer. At the time, Yahoo was still the “bigger” company, with annual revenues of $837 million that year, compared to Google’s $240 million.

April 1st, 2004: Google launches Gmail

Gmail homepage on March 31st, 2003

Google’s Gmail homepage on March 31st, 2003 — a day before Gmail launched

When Google launched its email service to compete with Microsoft’s Hotmail and Yahoo’s service, many thought it was a joke — it was announced on April Fool’s Day, after all. But with a then-unprecedented 1GB of free storage. At the time, free email services only offered a few megabytes of storage. In fact, Yahoo’s response to Gmail’s 1GB was an offer of 100 megabytes — a sign that Yahoo just didn’t know how to appeal to internet users the way Google did.

April 29th, 2004: Google goes public

April 2004 would prove to be a busy month for Google. The company filed an IPO (Initial Public Offering) on April 19th, and by April 29th, the company was officially public, with an evaluation of $27 billion.

February 8th, 2005: Google launches Maps

Google Maps

How Google Maps looked in 2005

If you’re not a loyal Apple eco-system devotee and you don’t live in mainland China, the chances are Google Maps is an indispensable tool in your everyday life. The mapping service began life in early 2005 as a desktop-only service, but it really wouldn’t be until smartphones became ubiquitous, did Google Maps become the must-use service it is today. According to The Guardian, Steve Jobs personally called Google to work together to ensure the app launched with the first iPhone.

July 2005: Google acquires Android — “Best deal ever”

Android Logo for Software Update Download Links

By mid-2005 Google was running on all cylinders. Its search engine market share had overtaken Yahoo over the past year to become the number one search engine in the US (in June 2005, Google’s market share of US search was 36.7% to Yahoo’s 30.4%); and the company was starting to do what tech giants do — acquire promising start-ups and absorb its technology and innovations.

In July of that year Google acquired a wireless software start-up named Android, Inc. The acquisition figure was not disclosed, but the vice president of Google’s corporate development, David Lawee, would hail it as “the best deal ever” at the time. Today, Android is the largest mobile platform by some distance, and a major reason why Google’s search dominates over 90% of mobile devices. Many of us at XDA wouldn’t have much work to do if Android didn’t exist so, yeah, ‘best deal ever’ doesn’t seem like hyperbole.

October 9th, 2006: Google acquires YouTube

YouTube logo on phone

Yup, another acquisition, and another service that, with Google’s guidance and resources, has now become literally a ubiquitous service worldwide (outside of mainland China, where it’s banned). According to Hollywood trade paper Variety, YouTube pulled in $7 billion in ad revenue for Google in Q2 of 2021 alone.

April 14th, 2007: Google acquires DoubleClick

Google was already an advertising giant at this time, but it didn’t use cookie-based tracking until its $3.1 billion acquisition of DoubleClick, an online advertising company that specialized in display ads. Google acquired the company’s software and began cookie-based tracking for advertising uses.

October 22nd, 2008: the first Android phone launches

the HT DREam

The HTC Dream/T-Mobile G1

The HTC Dream (known as T-Mobile G1 in the US) was announced in September 2008 and hit stores in October 2008. It wasn’t as elegant as the iPhone 3G which was already out at the time, but it introduced Android to the world, an open-source mobile OS with deep integration of Google’s services.

August 10th, 2015: Google restructures, becomes Alphabet Inc.

Google's new logoBy the mid 2010s Google had become such a vast sprawling company, co-founders Page and Brin decided to restructure the company. The duo would become in charge of a larger entity known as Alphabet Inc., with Google itself under its umbrella and headed by Sundar Pichai. This restructuring may have changed the status quo internally at Google and on the business end, but to consumers, nothing really changed. Google Search was the default search engine of choice, Google Maps, YouTube, etc were almost must-use services.

To celebrate the restructuring, Google did launch a new logo that looked very similar to the old one.

October 20th, 2016: Google ventures into hardware with the Pixel

Original Google Pixel

Even though Google Pixel phones never sold enough to be considered a hit or even mainstream, its launch is still a crucial moment in Google’s history, as it marked the software juggernaut’s first real foray into hardware. Sure, Google had toyed with the idea before with the Nexus series, but the Pixel was supposedly Google’s version of the iPhone — a device with hardware and software built by Google. Of course, this wasn’t quite true with the first few Pixels, as the hardware was manufactured by Taiwan phone maker HTC.

Still, the Pixel arguably pioneered the age of computational photography in smartphones, so it deserves a spot on this list.

January 30th, 2018: Google acquires HTC

Announced in September of 2017 but not finalized until the first month of 2018, Google’s purchase of HTC meant it acquired all of HTC’s hardware engineering team, so Google could finally say they make their own smartphone hardware.

December 18th, 2020: Google’s search dominance draws ire of US government

We already alluded in the opening paragraph of this article just how big Google has become today. Many of us living outside mainland China would have our entire digital lives (and perhaps even our actual incomes) crippled if Google were to abruptly stop offering any of its major services like Search, Maps, YouTube, Gmail, etc.

Should one company have this much power? Regulators around the world are beginning to say “no.” After the European Commission and Australian government scrutinized Google for anti-trust practices in the late 2010s, Republican lawmakers in the US followed suit last December by filing a trio of antitrust lawsuits against Google. The accusations claim Google is committing anti-competitive tactics to prevent rival search engines from catching up.

The thing is, to prove Google is behaving unethically is nearly impossible, because Google’s dominance over search is thanks to the unique nature of how internet searches work. As explained in this excellent New York Times feature, search engines rely on algorithms, and algorithms require data. The more people use Google Search, the more data Google collects, the smarter its algorithms become, and the more utility it can serve to its users and gain more popularity.

In other words, Google’s dominance in web search is a snowball effect: people want to use it because it’s better than other search engines, and the more people use it, the larger the lead becomes for Google when it comes to search engine performance.

August 2, 2021: Google announces its own smartphone silicon

Pixel 6 render

Google Pixel 6 leaked render. Source: OnLeaks/ 91Mobiles

Google teased/previewed its upcoming Pixel 6 smartphone last month, and while the phone is quite a looker, the big news coming from this announcement is the fact it will run on Google’s own SoC, Tensor. While it’s not known if Google manufactured all parts of the SoC, it’s confirmed Google at the very least designed it from the ground up.

This is big news, as it should in theory give the Pixel that hardware-software-SoC synergy that only Apple, and to some extent, Samsung, enjoys right now. With LG pulling out of the mobile market and Chinese brands still mostly absent, there’s room for the Pixel to grow in the US.

Google is already the most powerful software company right now. Imagine what happens if it nails hardware too.

What’s next for Google?

While it’s possible Google could eventually be forced by regulators to allow competitors to catch up, can this even happen realistically? What potential platform is going to replace YouTube in the near future? Even Apple, the rare company with the money and resources to match Google, still struggles to build a mapping system as good as Google’s despite almost a decade of trying.

It’s safe to say that Google is probably not going anywhere anytime soon. And we at XDA are particularly excited about the upcoming Pixel 6, since it could finally be a Pixel phone with mainstream appeal.

This isn’t to say everything Google touches turns to gold. Google’s had its fair share of misfires, as we covered in our other piece celebrating Google’s 23 years of existence. The rise of Google from a simple webpage to a digital giant we can’t live without in a little over two decades is nothing short of extraordinary. And if you look at www.google.com on any ordinary day, you’ll still see a seemingly simple and ordinary webpage.

About author

Ben Sin
Ben Sin

I'm a senior editor at XDA Developers. I have been a journalist for a decade, the last five years covering the mobile tech scene closely, reviewing just about every phone and attending trade shows and launches. I also run a gadget review channel on YouTube.