Google’s US head office, Mountain View, Santa Clara County, California

20 Years of Google

8th September 2017

Where were you on 15 September 1997? You may not recall, but Larry Page and Sergey Brin will. That was the date they registered the domain name Google.com – a website that, 20 years on, most of us use in some form or other every day. In the two decades since Google burst on to the scene it has pushed aside other search engine hopefuls such as Altavista and Lycos, grown to become the world’s most popular website, and permeated every aspect of human life, in good ways, bad ways, and perhaps rather sinister ways. Not bad for something that started as a research project for two nerdy PhD students at Stanford University. But while we all google, all the time, how has it actually changed our lives? Jennifer Lipman investigates…

1. Google is now a verb (with a small ‘g’):
It’s been a byword for going online since 2006, when it was officially recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary. Merriam Webster defines it as ‘to use the Google search engine to obtain information about (someone or something) on the World Wide Web’. In this, Google were trendsetters – more recently other tech terms have entered common parlance: today we ‘amazon it’ rather than buy online; we ‘uber it’ rather than hailing a taxi.

2. It’s brought some method to the madness:
While many of our first forays online would have been in the pre-Google era, Google’s sophisticated algorithms have done much to help us make sense of the growing volumes of information out there. It’s essentially the world’s most sophisticated filing system: instead of emptying the entire cabinet to find what we need, Google has made it easy to find anything at the click of a button.

3. Everything must be filmed:
Before the YouTube era – for, lest we forget, YouTube was bought by Google in 2006 – I always wondered who the people were whose videos ended up on You’ve Been Framed. But ever since Charlie Bit My Finger went viral, video has ruled: used today by everyone from millennials vlogging about make-up to musicians seeking a following and businesses sharing their chief executive’s latest presentation.

4. RIP the A-Z:
Sat Navs certainly bear some responsibility for making humble tools such as the road atlas and the iconic A-Z redundant. But Google has taken journey-planning – how long, how much traffic on the route, whether the motorway is quicker – to another level. Our streets are full of people following the blue dot, their eyes moving as if they’ve been hypnotised into submission. What it’s doing for the human race’s navigation skills is another question.

5. It’s made the encyclopaedia defunct:
Remember in Friends when Joey is convinced to purchase an encyclopaedia, but can only afford the volume for V? He swots up on the Vietnam War – but is stumped when the gang talks Korea instead. These days Joey would have the last laugh, able to search for anything, at any time, without stumping up anything more than his monthly broadband bill. But what to do with all that extra bookshelf space?

6. We’re obsessed with the weather:
Will it be raining tomorrow? Is it raining now? Instead of looking outside, why not ask Google?

7. It’s made parents all-knowing:
Mum and Dad no longer have to pretend they can answer the maddening questions of their little darlings. Why is the sea blue? What does a zebra eat? Hold on a second, sweetie, let me check with Google…

8. We’ve abandoned all privacy:
Google – like most modern web giants – knows everything about you (and sells it to advertisers): from where you’re going on holiday to which shops you frequent, to all your dirty secrets. It knows where you work and where you live, based on your usage of maps, and it sometimes tells you what you’re thinking before you’re thinking it, thanks to the auto-complete function. Most of us have been surprisingly willing to surrender our secrecy in return for the ease of the Google existence.

9. It’s ruined pub quizzes:
Back in the day you had to rack your brain to identify who won the US Open in 1983, or to work out the name of a song from one verse. These days there’s always some smart alec with a hidden smartphone crowing “Google says it’s…” For trivia-nerds, it’s incredibly frustrating (unless, of course, you win).

10. We’re constantly connected:
The vast majority of the smartphone market runs on either Google or Apple’s operating system. Just as Nokia got us to embrace mobiles in the 1990s and early noughties, for better or worse Google has helped us become the always-connected, always-tweeting, texting and tindering population we are today.

11. Everyone’s an expert…
Once, we’d have called a plumber for a leak or gone to a doctor for a diagnosis. Now, we google the problem or search for our symptoms, then watch a video or browse a random message board before deciding on a course of action. Never mind that the information we find may not actually be all that accurate…

12. … except at language skills:
Why bother learning French when you can use Google Translate to decipher the menu in that charming little Provence bistro? On a recent trip to Colombia, checking in to a small rural hotel, we sat across from the manager tapping our respective questions and answers. It worked – yet it left me with no better knowledge of speaking Spanish.

13. Pictures speak louder than words:
The changing Google Doodle often serves to alert us to national holidays, festivals, or long-dead historical figures. The ‘Doodlers’ have used their power to introduce us to the endangered pangolin, highlight that Lego is turning 50, and celebrate anniversaries of stars such as Michael Jackson.

14. We can travel the world from the comfort of our desks:
I’d rather visit Bali than use Street View or Earth to explore the land of Eat, Pray, Love – but Google’s virtual globetrotting software offers a close second if you aren’t able to pack your bags and fly away. Then there’s Google’s mission to bring the world’s centres of arts and culture to anyone’s door; you can now tour the Louvre, for example, without the bother of passport control.

15. We’re battling to see through ‘Fake news’:
This problem isn’t entirely down to Google News, which indexes global media reporting – it’s an internet wide problem linked to verification and the spread of misinformation – and Google has started taking action, announcing last April that it would permit users to challenge inaccurate search suggestions. But given that most of us get our facts from Google, the potential for false information to spread around the world in seconds is very frightening.

16. It’s made the hard drive redundant:
I’m surprisingly attached to mine; it’s where I store all my documents and photographs, going back to the earliest days of digital cameras. But the reality is that the future is in the cloud and Google Docs and Google Drive are at the forefront of the virtual storage revolution.

17. It’s made tech cool:
This isn’t just Google, it’s Facebook and Apple too, to be fair – but whereas wanting a career in tech might once have been the preserve of the nerds, Silicon Valley today is the destination of choice for anyone who wants to earn big bucks, wear a T-shirt all the time, and work in an office that resembles a child’s playground.

18. It’s made the impossible seem possible:
Google is one of those companies doing things that we would once have assumed belonged in science fiction, from trying to make self-driving cars happen to enabling us to don some glasses and use the internet hands-free. Some of its wackier ideas haven’t caught on, but there’s no question that the company is focused on doing things people say can’t be done.

19. It’s opened up ethical debate:
Google’s mantra started as ‘don’t be evil’, but plenty of critics believe the company fails to practise what it preaches, whether in terms of tax, thwarting online piracy, protecting the privacy and rights of individuals, or ensuring the internet is a safe place for vulnerable individuals. Commentators love to hate Google – but for the most part, they’re still content to use it.

20. …Oh, just Google it! (LOLZ)

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