At Google, intentions are still not evil

When Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google on Sept. 7, 1998, they had little more than their ingenuity, four computers and an investor's $100,000 bet on their belief that an Internet search engine could change the world.

It sounded preposterous 10 years ago, but look now: Google draws upon a gargantuan computer network, nearly 20,000 employees and a $150billion market value to redefine media, marketing and technology.

Page and Brin have repeatedly said they view Google as a force for good – a philosophy punctuated by its corporate motto: “Don't Be Evil.”

Perhaps Google's biggest test in the next decade will be finding a way to pursue its seemingly boundless ambitions without triggering a backlash that derails the company.

The company's expanding control over the flow of Internet traffic and advertising already is raising monopoly concerns. And the intensifying regulatory and political scrutiny on Google's expansion could present more roadblocks. Even now, there's a chance U.S. antitrust regulators will challenge Google's plans to sell ads for Yahoo, a fading Internet star whose recent struggles have been magnified by Google's success.

Privacy watchdogs also have sharpened their attacks on Google's retention of sensitive information about the 650 million people who use its search engine and other Web services, like YouTube, Maps and Gmail.

In the latest example of its relentless expansion, Google has just released a Web browser to make its search engine and other online services even more accessible and appealing.

Extending Google's ubiquity to cell phones and other mobile devices sits at the top of management's agenda for the next decade.

But the lengthy to-do list also includes: making digital copies of all the world's books; establishing electronic file cabinets for people's health records; leading the alternative energy charge away from fossil fuels; selling computer programs to businesses over the Internet; and tweaking its search engine so it can better understand requests stated in plain language, just like a human would.

“There are people who think we are plenty full of ourselves right now, but from inside at least, it doesn't look that way,” said Craig Silverstein, Google's technology director and the first employee hired by Page and Brin. “I think what keeps us humble is realizing how much further we have to go.”

Page and Brin, both 35 now and worth nearly $19billion apiece, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Google holds commanding leads in the Internet search and advertising markets. The company processes nearly two-thirds of the world's online search requests, according to the research firm comScore, and it sells about three-fourths of the ads tied to search requests, according to another firm, eMarketer.

The dominance has enabled Google to rake in $48 billion from Internet ads since 2001. The company hopes to inhale even more Internet advertising from the biggest deal in its short history – a $3.2 billion acquisition of online marketing service DoubleClick that was completed six months ago.

Google also is trying to mine more money from its second-largest acquisition, YouTube, the Internet's leading video channel. YouTube is expected to generate about $200 million in revenue this year.

But some rivals are determined to thwart Google. TV and movie conglomerate Viacom is suing Google for $1 billion for alleged copyright infringement at YouTube, while Microsoft signaled how desperately it wants to topple Google by offering to buy Yahoo for $47.5 billion this year.

The notion that Microsoft – the richest technology company – would spend so much time worrying about Google seemed inconceivable in September 1998, when Page and Brin decided to convert their research project in Stanford University's computer science graduate program into a formal company.

Page, a University of Michigan graduate, and Brin, a University of Maryland alum, began working on a search engine – originally called BackRub – in 1996 because they believed a lot of important content wasn't being found on the Web.

Internet search was considered such a low priority at the time that Page and Brin couldn't even find anyone willing to pay a couple of million dollars to buy their technology. Instead, they got a $100,000 investment from one of Sun Microsystems's co-founders, Andy Bechtolsheim, and filed incorporation papers so they could cash a check made out to Google. In a nod to their geeky roots as children of computer science and math professors, Page and Brin had derived the name from the mathematical term “googol” – a 1 followed by 100 zeros.

Later they would raise about $26 million from family, friends and venture capitalists to help fund the company and pay for now-famous employee perks like free meals and snacks.

Even after Google became an official company in 1998, the business continued to operate out of the founders' Stanford dorm rooms.

Jump to today: The company occupies a 1.5 million-square-foot headquarters called the “Googleplex” – as well as two dozen other U.S. offices and hubs in more than 30 other countries. And its search engine, believed to index at least 40 billion Web pages, now runs on hundreds of thousands of computers kept in massive data centers around the world, including one in Lenoir.

The growth dumbfounds Silverstein, whose only goal when he started was to help make Google successful enough to employ 80 people.

“It's natural when a company gets big that some people become fearful of that,” Silverstein said. “All we can do is to be as upfront and straightforward as possible. We are not trying to be malicious or have some sneaky plan to put you in our thrall. There are some people who will never believe that.”