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Google’s evolution over two decades

by Rob Welsby
03rd Jun 2016 - 12 min read

Invention and evolution are the two common themes of Google’s near 20-year history. From the invention of a better way of crawling and indexing the web in 1997-98, to the various tests of features and functionality over the years, Google has evolved from being useful to being ubiquitous. We don’t “search”, we “google”. So here’s our guide to some of the landmark changes when we’ve been googling over the years …

1998: What was Google’s first search result?

Think you know Google? Well, Google didn’t begin as Google. When doctoral students Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at Stanford University in the mid 1990s, their first collaboration was a search engine called BackRub. Their idea was to create an engine with the capacity to crawl and index the web at “large scale” – covering more information, faster and with greater accuracy than the search engines of the day, such as AltaVista, Lycos and Ask Jeeves. After soaking up “too much” bandwidth on Stanford’s servers, BackRub was followed by Google in 1997. “We chose our system name, Google, because it is a common spelling of googol, or 10100 and fits well with our goal of building very large-scale search engines,” the pair wrote in a paper about their new project a year later.  So, what was the first search result?

The private demo: “Gerhard Casper”

Page and Brin gave a private demo of their new engine to John Hennessey, then Dean of the School of Engineering at Stanford in 1998. Hennessey decided to search for “Gerhard Casper” and “Instead of getting results for Casper the Friendly Ghost, as he did on AltaVista, up popped links to Gerhard Casper the president of Stanford.”

FireShot Capture 34 - The Anatomy of a Search En_ - http___infolab.stanford.edu_-backrub_google.html

The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine by Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page http://infolab.stanford.edu/~backrub/google.html

The public showcase: “Bill Clinton”

When Brin and Page gave a more public showcase of Google’s potential in the same year, they used a different search query. This time, they used “Bill Clinton” as the example (pictured right). Why? 1998 marked the low-point of the Clinton presidency and the height of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. “The biggest problem facing users of web search engines today is the quality of the results they get back,” Brin and Page wrote in their academic paper on the Google project. “While the results are often amusing and expand users’ horizons, they are often frustrating and consume precious time. For example, the top result for a search for ‘Bill Clinton’ on one of the most popular commercial search engines was the Bill Clinton Joke of the Day: April 14, 1997. Google is designed to provide higher quality search so as the Web continues to grow rapidly, information can be found easily.”

2000. What was Google’s first AdWords advert?

Douglas Edwards, better known as “Google Employee 59”, revealed that the first AdWords campaign was booked within two hours of a beta version of the ad network going live in December 2000. For the princely sum of $83 dollars, a live mail-order seafood business in Rhode Island called Lively Lobsters bid against the term “lobster”. “And it didn’t generate a single order! That soon changed,” according to Ryan Bartholomew, the man who bought the first ad.

2002. The most lucrative pun ever …


Froogle screenshot, courtesy of Search Engine Land: http://searchengineland.com/goodbye-froogle-hello-google-product-search-11001

You’re searching online for a good deal, right? So you’re frugal with your money when you’re on Google. So you’re “Froogle” … geddit? This was the terrible pun that Google used to launch the forerunner of Google Shopping in 2002 – a tool to find and compare prices for products within the search engine itself.

The service has endured longer than the pun, however. Froogle was rebranded as the rather more straightforward Google Product Search in 2007 and finally as Google Shopping in 2012. Today, it’s common to find a Google Shopping carousel integrated into the first page of search results for commercial queries.

2007. Search goes vertical … and universal

For 10 years, search was about delivering a result in the format you were
looking for. Looking for an image? Use FireShot Capture 52 - iPhone - Google Search_ - https___www.google.co.uk_webhpGoogle Images and you’d be served a page of pictures. Looking for text, videos, news or scholarly articles? Choose the format of the search and that’s what you’d get. This was “horizontal” search: looking across a range of topics for the information you are looking for in a particular format.

But in 2007, Google introduced “Universal Search”. Now, you’d get the same breadth of information as before, but your results would appear in multiple formats: images, videos, even product listing results. This was Google integrating its various features and formats into a single SERP. So the engine was no longer just looking across a topic, it was looking “vertically” for different layers of information. By 2015, four out of five Google searches ended up with a “blended” result of different formats – most commonly, Google Shopping listings. So, for example, search for “iPhone” and today you’ll see Shopping, images and news results sitting together on the main search results page.

2009. A drooling dog takes the lead on rich snippets

Take a common name and google it. In Google’s first decade, you’d have been served a traditional list of links with a few explanatory characters underneath. Sometimes those few explanatory words were enough to help you differentiate between the results – sometimes not. So in 2009, the “rich snippet” was born. This was the addition of extra layers of information to enrich search results. The snippets could be star-ratings from reviews, recipes, information about people, places, products and how to contact a business. The richer the snippet, the more tempting the click, or so the theory goes. “It’s a simple change to the display of search results, yet our experiments have shown that users find the new data valuable — if they see useful and relevant information from the page, they FireShot Capture 51 - Official Google Webmaster Central Blog_ - https___webmasters.googleblog.com_are more likely to click through,” Google explained in its blog unveiling snippets in May 2009. The example used to illustrate the new feature? The “Drooling Dog Bar” in California – a barbecue joint:

2009. Google goes real-time

Late in 2009, Google introduced “real-time” results – showcasing the very
latest online information about the topicFireShot Capture 54 - Real Time Search - YouTube - https___www.youtube.com_watch_v=WRkYmx4A9Do being searched for. Information was drawn from breaking news media sites and social media, particularly Twitter, with tweets shown  in speech bubbles at the top of SERPs. Google declared that real-time results were also particularly useful for mobile users who might find it useful to have the very latest information about where they were at their fingertips.

Google’s relationship with Twitter stumbled in 2011 – leading to the loss of tweets from real-time results – though a new agreement between the two internet giants saw them return as a feature of SERPs in February 2015.

2010. How Bob Dylan mixing up the medicine helped Google read your mind

Through the mid noughties, Google worked hard to read people’s minds – trying to predict what they were looking for while they were still typing in the search bar. The first attempt was Google Suggest in 2008 … a tool and a plaything that certainly amused the world’s mediaFireShot Capture 48 - The 20 funniest suggestions from Googl_ - http___www.telegraph.co.uk_technol

But in 2010, Google Instant was launched – making more of a searcher’s location and their personal preferences
captured by the Chrome browser – to deliver better predictions. To demonstrate the new feature, Google turned to the iconic video that accompanied Bob Dylan’s 1965 record, Subterranean Homesick Blues.  Using the example of Dylan’s lyrics being typed into a search bar, Google showed how it could now pre-empt mid-query what users might be searching for. But rather than one real-time prediction, Google Instant offered users the most common – and most likely – permutations.

FireShot Capture 43 - Google Instant with Bob Dylan - YouTube_ - https___www.youtube.com_watch







FireShot Capture 44 - Google Instant with Bob Dylan - YouTube_ - https___www.youtube.com_watch (1)








2011. Putting faces and names to links: the rise and demise of Google Authorship

Who you are mattered … for a while. In 2011, Google started to identify authors of content as “authorities” on topics. Google Authorship – which tied search results more closely to information from Google+ – saw a “rich snippet” of by-line photographs and names of writers appear next to their content in SERPS. But Authorship was axed by Google in the summer of 2014. Why? It seems Google’s main aim was to deliver uncluttered, clear and simple search results on mobile devices. But today, there’s still speculation that Authorship will make a comeback at some point in future

FireShot Capture 49 - Authorship markup - YouTube - https___www.youtube.com_watch_v=FgFb6Y-UJUI

Google’s Matt Cutts and Othar Hansson explain how Authorship works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgFb6Y-UJUI

2012. Google goes wiki … Knowledge GraphFireShot Capture 35 - Bill Clinton - Google Search_ - https___www.google.co.uk_webhp

Let’s go right back to the beginning and the first public search: Bill Clinton. Carry out the same search today and you’ll see how far Google has evolved. Back in 1998, the search results page was a simple list of links. Today, you find a variety of features – most notably, the Knowledge Graph: the right hand box which gives a summary of data around the queried topic. In this case, that means basic biographical facts of the former president.

The aim is simple: present basic, but high quality information on the search result page which may mean the user does not need to click a link at all. The answer is right there. This was Google’s first step from “being an information engine to being a knowledge engine” allowing easy discovery of related, relevant material about the topic being queried than ever before.

2014. Erasing the past … Google’s Right to be forgotten

FireShot Capture 42 - Legal Removal Requests - Le_ - https___support.google.com_legal_answer_3110420

Google’s “Legal Removal Requests” advisory pages: https://support.google.com/legal/answer/3110420?hl=en-GB

One signal of Google’s global dominance came in 2006 with its entry in the Oxford English Dictionary and US counterpart, Merriam-Webster, as a verb. “To google something” now was synonymous with web searching. But when brands achieve that scale of world-wide renown and influence, other factors begin to affect their direction. In Google’s case, it was the law – and particularly European law. In 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled in favour of a Spanish businessman who asked for an old newspaper report about his financial affairs to be removed from Google’s index. The ruling applied only to users in the European Union – with the results under scrutiny still available in Google results in the United States and other non-EU member states.  The practice, the ruling meant the introduction of a new element to search results in Europe – a small text panel at the foot of the first page:

FireShot Capture 50 - Mario Gonzalez - Google Search_ - https___www.google.co.uk_search

However, today Google is considering extending the right to be forgotten principle to any of domains if they are accessed within the EU.

2015. Mobilegeddon … the beginning of a new chapterFurther mobile

For the best part of two decades, Google search was about desktop computers. But in 2015, the company revealed
that majority of searches were now taking place on mobile devices, whether smartphones or tablets. The company announced that it would start to reward websites with a “mobile-friendly” tag in SERPs to differentiate those sites that offered a good user experience on a smartphone or tablet.

But the shift from desktop to mobile had further implications for SERPS. Google would now look to make the desktop experience of search more consistent with its mobile presentation … rather than the other way round.

2016. AdWords redux and “Rich cards”

One of the first areas of Google’s desktop experience to be brought into line with mobile was AdWords. In February 2016, Google announced that the long-standing right-hand column of ads would be removed (there’s no right rail on a mobile device).

Instead, there would be a move to four ads above organic search results and three at the foot of the page. The removal of the right rail of desktop PPC ads means that instead of 11 ads on any results page, the maximum is now be seven. Some commentators predicted that the price of ads would rise. Matt Lawson, Director of Performance Ads Marketing for Google, counselled caution in his blog for Search Engine Land: “Please don’t overreact to this change and get your bids out of whack with where they should be.” Time will tell on how the change will affect the cost and effectiveness of ads. But as for the look and layout of SERPS, the right rail on desktop now looks like the preserve of integrated results, whether the Knowledge Graph or Google Shopping.

Screenshot of Google search rich cardsRich cards were launched in May this year and to quote Google directly again, “…are a new Search result format building on the success of rich snippets. Just like rich snippets, rich cards use schema.org structured markup to display content in an even more engaging and visual format, with a focus on providing a better mobile user experience.”

So far, they’re only available for movies and recipes – subjects which lend themselves to visual content – and no doubt Google will roll it out to other types of content depending on the feedback and impact. Only time will tell if they go the way of “authorship” or become the default view for many topics.

Beyond 2016 …

The story of Google’s development is test, learn and evolve. So it’s likely we have already seen the seeds of future innovation in features that have been tried in the past or are being tested right now. The main feature to watch is Voice Search – driven, in part, by the growth of mobile use. Improvements in machine learning and voice recognition will make the words “Ok Google …” a familiar sound around the world. Who knows, maybe the time isn’t that far ahead when Google just tells you the right answer rather than choosing from options and then reading it …?


Read the new post on the new expanded text adverts here: do they deliver on the hype?

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