As millions of people came online in the late 1990s they needed help figuring out what each webpage was about, and how to find what they were looking for. When Google was founded in September 1998, it had to compete with the information retrieval algorithms and techniques – nicknamed “secret sauce” – used by Lycos, Yahoo and other companies.
Technically speaking, Google added two innovations: highly efficient processes for crawling webpages to index their text, and a new way of ranking a page’s relevance based on the number and quality of pages that linked to it. In addition, its interface was refreshingly clean.
Two decades into Google’s history, the power of search is still paramount. But there are signs of trouble. The company’s role in providing misleading information to U.S. voters is under scrutiny. More than 3,100 Google employees signed a public letter protesting the use of their work in warfare technologies – and about a dozen of them resigned in protest. Even more recently, 1,600 Googlers signed a petition to stop their employer from opening a government-restricted search service in China. Additionally, President Donald Trump has questioned whether its rankings for news stories are fair. What might the next 20 years of Google bring?
Google is used to being under scrutiny. In late July 2004 in Sheffield, England, I recall the buzz the company created at the 27th Annual Association of Computing Machinery Special Interest Group in Information Retrieval Research Conference. There were betting pools about when Google would offer its stock for public purchase, and at what price.
The company founded by two Stanford graduate students in 1998, which went public on Aug. 19, 2004, at US$85 a share, still gets the vast majority of its annual revenue from selling search-related advertising.
Yet Google has grown too, in part thanks to a policy giving employees the freedom to work one day a week on side projects that catch their fancy. Now reorganized into an umbrella company called Alphabet, the company has expanded into industries as diverse as smartphone operating systems, mapping apps and self-driving vehicles.
Many of the company’s efforts to diversify build on strengths it has developed providing search, such as cloud computing systems that take advantage of Google engineers’ experience managing massive data centers and huge amounts of traffic from – and to – sites all around the world.
Google’s future depends on continuing to create and leverage indexes on features beyond the words on web pages. Combining the ability to identify a user performing the search with its knowledge of that person’s search history and their current location, Google can already provide finely tuned personalized results.
Google is already applying its expertise to its line of smart speakers and personal assistants, offering its well-regarded search results through voice recognition and spoken responses. One day typing text onto a screen may seem as quaint as rotary phones.
A next category of features might be called anticipatory search, providing information or suggesting action without a user even specifying a query. For instance, some cars already go beyond alerting the driver to low fuel levels, locating and providing directions to nearby gas stations.
Google may even ramp up its efforts to distinguish people from machines – such as “captcha” challenges and multi-factor authentication processes. From there, it may work to eliminate the increasing efforts from both humans and computers to secretly influence search results for malicious purposes.
These features may sound exciting and useful, but they also carry important ethical concerns, about who can access people’s personal data, and for what purposes. It will be interesting to see whether the concerns Google employees are currently expressing about political uses of their work will extend to personal privacy, and whether – and how – any objections might influence searches in the future.