Some 25 years ago, two Ph.D. students at Stanford University — Larry Page and Sergey Brin — built a search engine that used links to determine the importance of individual pages on the World Wide Web. The search engine was called Backrub.
Two years later, before incorporating it in 1998, both Page and Brin saw the need to change its name with an interesting word that adequately conveyed the truly enormous volume of information their search engine would process. Google was named after ‘Googolplex,’ or ‘Googol’ for short. The mathematical term means a number of nearly incomprehensible size. It represents the infinite amount of information that Google provides.
Today, Google has a market value of more than US$1 trillion with the majority of its revenue generated through advertising. And with an 87% market share of the search industry as of this year, dwarfing competitors like Bing (6.4%) and Baidu (0.68%), Google’s very name is synonymous with the action of trawling the web for specific information. As a result, Google’s parent company Alphabet has become one of the world’s biggest tech companies, with 2019 revenues at roughly US$160.74 billion.
Since founding, the search giant has also expanded its services to Cloud, mail, Maps, productivity tools, enterprise products, mobile devices and smart assistants, and numerous other ventures. Google Chrome, meanwhile, controls 66% of the world’s web browsing and nearly three-quarters of smartphones use Google’s Android operating system.
All of these products and services generate exabytes of data, which are processed to optimize targeted advertising models and inform the continuous evolution and expansion of services. Many of us now depend on Google in some way or another daily, this domination in so many facets of technology and business — and increasing prevalence in our every day lives as consumers — has regulators and lawmakers around the world questioning whether the data-powered behemoth has become too powerful.
What is happening to Google?
Over two decades ago, Page and Brin condemned Microsoft as a technological bully that ruthlessly abused its dominance of the personal computer software market to choke off competition that could spawn better products. From that, Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” corporate motto was hoped to stay the firm’s moral compass as it transitioned from a free-wheeling startup to a publicly-traded company suddenly accountable to shareholders.
Fast forward to today, and Google is in the crosshairs of a US Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuit accusing it of harming both advertisers and regular people, having become “the unchallenged gateway to the internet for billions of users worldwide.”
“As a consequence, countless advertisers must pay a toll to Google’s search advertising and general search text advertising monopolies,” the US government wrote in a landmark complaint requesting a federal court to intervene to protect competition. The government also argues that Google has abused its monopoly power through agreements with other companies that promote Google’s apps and place its “search access points” as a default on browsers, phones, and other devices. All this, the complaint alleges, comes at the expense of market competition.
Of course, having been at the top of its game for many years, this kind of attention isn’t quite new ground for Google. In 2019, EU regulators imposed antitrust fines totaling more than US$9 billion, which ultimately forced it to allow Android users to pick their preferred browser and search engine. As of September 2020, however, Google still had a roughly 93% share of Europe’s search market. In short, Google’s sheer size and power rendered Europe’s tactics relatively toothless.
Are alternatives possible or far fetched?
According to the DOJ, what makes it impossible for Google to cede its command over online search is the lack of a viable alternative and the challenge of building one: “Google’s search index contains hundreds of billions of webpages and is well over 100,000,000 gigabytes in size,” the DOJ said in its lawsuit. “Developing a general search index of this scale, as well as viable search algorithms, would require an upfront investment of billions of dollars.”
Well, if any company had come close to building an alternative was Google’s very own early days rival, Microsoft, which had fairly comfortable resources to compete with the former. But Microsoft’s search engine Bing launched more than a decade ago, has failed to attract a significant audience. Bing is currently in second place behind Google but enjoys just a fraction of the traffic earned by the market leader.
So what are the alternatives, especially for the super security conscious? According to reports, there are various alternatives to all Google products like Gmail, Chrome, Google Drive, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Google Photos, YouTube, Google Translate, and Google Analytics, Google Maps, PlayStore, and others.
But for many, giving up Google’s vast range of connected, powerful, and generally reliable services seems more hassle than it’s worth. Echoing what Google’s Senior Vice President of Global Affairs Kent Walker said in a blog post recently; “People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives.”