Google’s 20th Anniversary: How the Search Giant Went From a Stanford Dorm to the Top of Tech

Google has gone from zero to nearly a trillion in 20 years—in pages and value.

The tech giant, which was incorporated September 4, 1998, celebrates its 20th anniversary Tuesday. The company has a market capitalization of more than $850 billion, says it has indexed hundreds of billions of pages and is aware of over 100 trillion. Along the way, it’s changed its name (twice!), transformed online search and digital advertising, and served as a fierce competitor in the smartphone market, for inexpensive laptops, and in self-driving cars.

Unofficially at least, Google got its starts back in 1996, when Larry Page and Sergey Brin were graduate students at Stanford University working on an idea in opposition to search engines, which at the time indexed Web pages and returned pages in the order determined by the best matches for keywords in the search query. Page and Brin started work on BackRub, which started with search queries, but ranked which pages came out first in listings by relying largely on the number of links coming into a page—the so-called “backlinks.”

The idea stuck—BackRub’s PageRank approach remains at the core of Google’s search ranking—though its name didn’t. By 1997, BackRub became Google, and by 1998, after routinely swamping Stanford’s Internet connection, the two formed Google, Inc. with $100,000 from Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim. They relocated to the garage of Susan Wojcicki, now the head of YouTube. And from there, Google grew and grew.

In 2015, Google made its second name change, splitting up the company into divisions owned by a holding firm, Alphabet Inc., of which Google is the subsidiary that mostly focuses on search.

Here’s a timeline of significant events in the company’s history:

1998: Besides Bechtolsheim, Google raises over $1 million from David Cheriton (a Stanford professor), Ram Shriram (ex-Netscape), and Jeff Bezos. Smaller investments follow.

1999: The company raises $25 million and moves to Mountain View, Calif. Google tries to sell itself to Excite, then a major search engine, which doesn’t provide an acceptable offer.

2000: Google becomes Yahoo’s search-engine provider, an arrangement that would last until 2004. Yahoo operated its own search engine until it switched to Microsoft’s Bing in 2010, then to a hybrid of Microsoft and Google results in 2015. Google also first offers non-English versions of its site. And it launched its series of “Doodles,” its date-specific home-page graphics, some as elaborate as a fully playable Pac-Man.

2001: Former Sun Microsystems executive Eric Schmidt joins as chairman, later becoming CEO.

2002: Google News launches. Yahoo offers $3 billion for the privately held company, which Google declines.

2003: Google acquires Blogger, one of the earliest promoters of blogging and blog hosting. The company launches Google AdSense, which places ads on publishers’ sites—even low-traffic blogs—and shares ad revenue with them.

2004: Google goes public, raising $1.67 billion in an unusual online auction format. The company debuts Gmail, a Web-based email service with an enormous amount of online storage for the time—one gigabyte! It doubled storage a year later. Google starts Google Print, later Google Books, to scan books for its index.

2005: The firm launches Google Maps and Google Earth for navigation and satellite imagery, and Google Talk for chat. In a follow-up stock offering, Google raises over $4 billion.

2006: Google launches a censored version of its search engine within China, in opposition to the company’s professed mission to make all the world’s information available. It also acquires YouTube, and launches Google Docs and Spreadsheets (later, just Sheets), free Web apps competing with Microsoft Office products.

2007: Google starts distributing the Android smartphone operating system to developers, the product of a minor acquisition in 2005. Google buys DoubleClick, a major online display advertising network. StreetView comes to Google Maps.

2008: The Chrome Web browser first appears, as well as T-Mobile’s G1, the first smartphone to run Android.

2009: Google quietly starts its self-driving car project.

2010: The company releases its first self-branded phone, the Nexus One. The firm shuts down its search engine in mainland China. In an effort to boost broadband, Google starts creating city-wide fiber optic networks, which it stopped expanding in 2016.

2011: The first Chromebook, a stripped-down laptop, appears. It runs Chrome OS, which largely enables Web-based applications. The company buys cell-phone maker Motorola Mobility, mostly for its patents, starts major layoffs, and winds down the acquisition by 2014. Larry Page becomes Google’s CEO.

2012: Google demonstrates Google Glass, network-connected glasses that paint an overlay of data and still and moving images on the lenses, an approach called augmented reality.

2013: The firm acquires Waze, a navigation and traffic-avoiding app, and introduces Chromecast, for streaming media to TVs.

2014: Google buys Nest home-automation company, and reveals a prototype of its self-driving car.

2015: Google reorganizes into a holding company called Alphabet, Inc., of which Google is just a division, largely handling the search business. Sundar Pichai becomes its CEO. Google Photos launches, replacing its predecessor, Picasa.

2016: Google Home smart speakers are introduced. The AI-backed voice-based helper Google Assistant also appears as part of Home and Allo. (Allo was later “paused,” but not canceled.)

2017: Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car division, sues Uber, alleging trade-secret theft and other matters. Uber agrees to settle in 2018. Google discloses that Russian-affiliated parties purchased ads intended to affect the 2016 presidential election, although it was a modest sum spent.

2018: After years of its search engine and other products effectively blocked within China, reports indicate that the company has put work into an approach, codenamed Dragonfly, that would meet government censorship rules. Google’s CEO tells employees it’s only in “exploratory” phase.

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