So, Google is 20 years old today. That’s quite something but is it something to celebrate or something to commiserate?
It was about 20 years ago that a friend of mine said she’d been approached by a company looking to set up in the UK. She’d never heard of them, but they offered to fly her to the US to meet and she could do some shopping at the same time. We’d never heard of them and were bemused by the offer, but the shopping thing made us think it could do no harm to meet them. What happened? Well, the company was Google and our friend became the first Google employee outside of the US and the rest is kind of history.
My next contact with Google came from a letter in New Scientist where an academic said they had stopped using bookmarks because this new site called Google was better. It’s hard to understand what life was like pre-Google. There were search engines like Yahoo, Ask Jeeves and Alta Vista but they were primitive and clunky. Even now I find it hard to use Bing consistently. The arrival of a search engine that just seemed to work was amazing at the time and over the last two decades Google has gone on to transform many areas of our lives:
Firstly, Google pioneered the free for ads model. For the best part of 20 years Google has been one of the few media companies to make significant revenue from advertising online. They weren’t the first to apply the freemium model, but they’ve been the most successful. Money follows audience and with a hugely useful search tool, the audience surely followed. Now we take it for granted that we can access free applications but the idea of giving it away was novel at the time.
Secondly, Google had democratised the business of media. Google’s pay-per-click auction model was pioneered by a company called Overture, but its application has been a huge success for Google (Google settled the infringement in 2004). It has allowed almost anyone to become a media buyer and has consequentially destroyed the classified ad market bringing local and national newspapers to their knees as well as greatly reducing the need for call centre staff and Yellow Pages (remember them?).
It has enabled advertisers to in-house media services. The days of relationships and buying power being the sole preserve of agencies has been turned on its head and now anyone can set up and run campaigns across a wide range of media including mobile, video and programmatic.
Google has also democratised TV. YouTuber Joe Sugg starring in Strictly shows us just how far we’ve come in that anyone can launch their own “channel” from their bedroom, showing that talent does not solely exist within the TV production industry.
Thirdly, brand new industries have sprung up too. On the back of search, markets like price comparison sprang up. It’s worth thinking that companies like MoneySupermarket, Go Compare and Zoopla simply would not exist without Google having existed first. You could say Google created the Meerkat.
I’m no great fan of the way Google exploits its monopoly position (and 20 years ago it was Microsoft who was in the EU’s firing line and look how that has ended up) but it’s worth taking pause for thought on how Google has played a huge role in shaping our modern world. I’ve been privileged to live through the last 20 years in an industry that has been turned upside down by one company. It’s been a bumpy ride, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Happy Birthday Google!
Nick Suckley | Digital Partner