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How Blunders And Myopia Helped Fuel Google's Rise To Dominance

As Google co-founder Larry Page takes the helm as Google CEO today, it’s interesting to look back at some of the seminal events that spurred the once dedicated academic to abandon his graduate studies at Stanford and take the plunge as an entrepreneur.

By 1996, it was apparent to many that Larry Page and Sergey Brin had created a very good search engine (called BackRub at the time). But they were reluctant to commercialize it—they were at Stanford to get advanced degrees (like their fathers), not start a company. So the pair had a series of meetings to explore the idea of selling or licensing their technology. But virtually everyone they spoke with either wasn’t interested or didn’t see the value in the search technology that used a new way of ranking results called “PageRank.”

Steven Levy’s new book In The Plex recounts these meetings in detail, and with the benefit of hindsight its hard not to cringe at the monumental misjudgements that in part led to Google becoming the world’s most dominant search engine.

The CEO of Excite, a leading search engine at the time, readily acknowledged that Google results were better than Excite’s—but because most of Excite’s revenue came from people staying on the site, he actually wanted results to be “80% as good as other search engines,” and nixed a proposed deal that would have had Larry Page come onboard as an employee for a spell.

Yahoo’s Jerry Yang and David Filo “had a good meeting” with Page and Brin, but “didn’t see the need to buy search engine technology.” Louis Monier, a founder of AltaVista, was impressed with the pair, but despite his role in running one of the most popular search engines of the day didn’t have the authority to make a deal. Steve Kirsch, CEO of Infoseek told the pair to “go pound sand” during their meeting.

“We couldn’t get anyone interested,” says Page. So we said, ‘Whatever,’ and went back to Stanford to work on it some more.”

But the entrepreneurial urge finally got the better of them. In 1997, after renaming BackRub to (the ironically misspelled) “Google,” Page and Brin started securing investments that allowed them to start their own company.

Another interesting alternate universe scenario: In February 1997, Dow Jones employee Robin Li filed a patent for a system called “RankDex”—which was in many ways very similar to PageRank—nearly a full year before Stanford filed its patent for PageRank. “I tried to convince [Dow Jones] it was important, but their business had nothing to do with Internet search, so they didn’t care,” Li said.

You may not be familiar with Robin Li, but you may have heard about the search engine he created and currently runs: Baidu, China’s most popular search engine and a growing global force.

The rest is history, of course. I’ve been writing about Google since 1997 and am personally familiar with a lot of the company’s history. But I’m finding a wealth of detail I never knew in In The Plex. It’s a fantastic history, extremely well researched and engagingly readable as well.

I’m planning a full review of the book before its official publication date on April 12. But over the next week or so I’ll also recount a few of the fascinating details that Levy recounts.

Want more history? Here’s Barry Schwartz’s recap of a Search Memories panel I moderated in 2004, with Doug Cutting the senior engineer from Excite, Steve Kirsch the founder of Infoseek and Louis Monier, the primary “instigator” of AltaVista (raise your hands if you actually remember those search engines…).

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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