Google's headquarters is located in Mountainview, Calif., but it might as well be Mount Olympus given the company's wild success and seemingly unending acquisition spree. The Google search engine, which handled 70 percent of all online requests at the time we wrote this, is just the tip of a rapidly expanding empire. Over the years, Google has introduced a suite of innovative applications and services, ranging from Gmail and Google Apps to AdWords and AdSense. The company also has ventured into the smartphone fray (and is no doubt hatching new plans as we write). No wonder the company's stock consistently sells for $600 a share or higher on the Nasdaq exchange.
What's astounding is not the level of success the company has achieved, but the timeline in which it has done it. IBM history dates back to 1911, Microsoft and Apple to the mid-1970s. Google doesn't have to look back nearly so far. All things Google began in 1995. That's when Sergey Brin, a 21-year-old student at Stanford University, took University of Michigan graduate Larry Page, just a year older, on a tour of the campus. Legend has it that the two disliked each other and bickered the entire tour. But it must not have been a complete disaster because Page enrolled in Stanford and began working to fulfill the requirements of his Ph.D. program in computer sciences.
Page considered several topics for his doctoral thesis but finally settled on the World Wide Web, which, although growing in the mid-1990s, was still little more than a curiosity. Page decided to focus his attention on the link structure of the Web. Was it possible, he wondered, to use links between Web pages to rank their relative importance? And, if this was indeed possible, could he develop an algorithm -- a set of mathematical rules -- to count and qualify every back link on the Web?
By 1996, Page was knee-deep in the project, but the complexity of the math proved challenging. He reached out to Brin, the outspoken grad student who first introduced Page to the Stanford campus. Brin began working with Page to further refine and develop the math, so that links pointing to a site could be ranked according to importance. They named the resulting algorithm PageRank and then inserted it into BackRub, a search engine that started crawling the Web, beginning with Stanford's home page and working outward from there, across the 10 million online pages that existed at the time.
Partners in PageRank: Page, Brin and Stanford
A year after incorporating the algorithm into BackRub, the two students knew they were onto something big. The search results they were getting from BackRub were far superior to results being produced by existing search engines, in their opinion. Not only that, Page and Brin realized that as the Web grew, their results would only get better -- because a growing number of Internet pages meant more links and greater resolution in determining what was relevant and what wasn't. They decided to change the name of BackRub to something that better reflected the massive scale of their project. They settled on Google, after "googol," the term used to describe the number 1 followed by 100 zeros.
Although the Google brand name might be interesting or even innovative, it's the PageRank algorithm that forms the company's foundation. On Jan. 9, 1998, Page and Brin filed for a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Patent number 6,285,999, "Method for node ranking in a linked database," lists Larry Page as the inventor and the assignee as Stanford University. What does that mean? It means Stanford actually owns the patent for the page-ranking process -- Page and Brin license the use of the PageRank algorithm in their commercial endeavor.
Not that the algorithm has remained unchanged since those heady days of the dot-com frenzy. In 2001, Google turned over the code to Amit Singhal, who had come to the company from AT&T Labs only a year before. Singhal rewrote the algorithm so that the Google search engine could incorporate additional ranking criteria more easily. Could this be considered a reinvention? Perhaps, but if that's the case, then the Google search engine is being reinvented constantly. For example, in 2007, the company introduced universal search -- the ability to get links to any medium on the same results page. All told, Google owns hundreds of patents related to the mathematical processes used to generate more effective search results.
Then there's the non-search-engine side of Google -- things like Gmail, AdWords, AdSense and Google Voice. These innovations come from Google's team of engineers. Not all of their ideas pan out, but a few, like Google News, the brainchild of Google Chief Scientist Krishna Bharat, are home runs.
So, when thinking about the invention of Google, it's helpful to consider a two-part answer. The inventor of the Google search engine was Larry Page, with a key assist by Sergey Brin. But the multifaceted, multinational company we know today is the product of a team of brilliant engineers. Of course, every idea eventually must make it past Page and Brin, the geek gods who have built one of the most successful technology brands -- and one of the most compelling mythologies -- in the history of business.