There were many ways to search the Internet before Google came along, but none of them turned into a verb. These days, a big deal is being made of Google's turning 10 by a lot of the media. Most of the coverage has had a bit of an edge to it, as if people do not want to accept the success that Google has enjoyed.
This anniversary does provide a good excuse to take a look back at where we came from. A few years ago, someone asked me what was my biggest surprise in what the Internet turned out to be, based on what I expected 15 years ago. My answer: "mom surfing."
Fifteen years ago the Internet was big -- at least it seemed that way to me at the time -- but the Web only just had been announced (in April 1993), and was yet to be seen as anything significant. There were Internet search tools around in 1993, however. Archie, Gopher and other tools searched and indexed FTP sites but were used mostly by geeks like me.
The idea that my mother would want to use such tools -- or have any reason to want to do so -- never occurred to me. The Web started the change that led to lots of people's moms now using this once geek-friendly environment, but it was the development of search engines that completed the change.
In 1993 there were a few hundred Web sites on the Internet. In two years the number had grown to tens of thousands, and by the time Google was founded, to more than 2.5 million. For comparison, there are well over 100 million Internet Web sites today (according to the usually unreliable numbers). This is about one-fifth of the number of Internet hosts.
Even with "only" a few million Web sites, finding things on the 'Net was next to impossible, so the need for something to index the sites was rather clear. Web crawlers and search engines started right when the Web did, and there were quite a few by the time the Google guys announced theirs. I remember using AltaVista quite a bit -- it seemed like a bit of a wonder at the time. The wonder is still there, but most people no longer even think about what goes into providing the instant information-gratification that the Web has become.
What makes Google special? For most people it is not just the ability to search the Web. Yahoo and MSN do that just fine. (Just for giggles, I searched for myself as people want to do, and Google came up with 122,000 hits; MSN had 153,000, and Yahoo 352,000.) There are a lot of differences in what comes up on the first screen, but they all work quite well. It seems to me that what makes Google special is that the company never sits still. It seems as if new things are announced every day (the day I submitted this column, it was announced that Google has been indexing old newspapers in a bigger way). Google is a lot more than search these days.
Regular readers of this column will know that I do not much like Google's data-retention policies (for example, see "Google: looking good by doing less evil"), although Google has just started to reduce data retention somewhat. But I do use Google, and it works well. It is also one of the basic reasons that lots of moms are not only surfing but also finding what they are looking for -- and much more besides.
Disclaimer: Harvard knows that if you find only what you look for in an educational setting, then the setting has failed; but the university has not expressed any opinion on Google, the verb.