Great Googly Moogly

by Kieran Healy on November 1, 2003

The Economist reports that Google is planning to go public next spring. “All told, 75% of referrals to websites now originate from Google’s algorithms. That,” the story says, “is power.” But how to make money from it? Meanwhile, The New York Times says that Microsoft might like to buy Google, or alternatively bump it out of the way. As the story in the _Economist_ notes, “Microsoft smells blood. It is currently working on its own search algorithm, which it hopes to make public early next year, around the probable time of Google’s share listing.”

Google is interesting because it functions more like a giant public utility than a company with a particular product. People trust it to deliver results that are honest as well as accurate; it’s the site that makes the Web’s vast interconnectedness real for users; and its stripped-down interface reinforces the idea that it’s providing a basic service. So how is Google going to make money for its shareholders? It can hardly become much more dominant in the search business. Bolting things on to the basic service (Google Ads, selling the algorithm to third parties) doesn’t seem like a route to long-term growth. Maybe they have some new ideas we don’t know about.

Then there’s Microsoft. The contrast between attitudes towards the two companies is instructive. They both dominate their respective markets, but while people fear and doubt Microsoft, they love and trust Google. The possibility that the former might buy the latter would horrify many Internet users. The more likely prospect that Microsoft might try to leverage its dominance on the desktop to muscle Google out of the way. Microsoft-haters might hope that its inability to write good software would pre-empt this, but the odds are that you’re not reading this using Netscape.



Jonathan Wilde 10.31.03 at 11:38 pm

Actually, I love Microsoft. I’ve used a Microsoft operating system since about 1993. Internet Explorer was my browser of choice since approximately 1999 until early this year when I switched to opera. I do not fear Microsoft.


Keith M Ellis 11.01.03 at 12:01 am

Google is vulnerable, but the fact that MS hasn’t already beaten them into submission is telling. After all, MS already has a search engine and portal, and they’ve built automatic searching via their portal into IE.

On the other hand, Google’s contextual text ads are a brilliant move, but it’s not clear to me how closely dependent it is upon their core competency. And, as has been mentioned elsewhere, “Page Rank” is starting to break and greatly decrease Google’s utility.

Google has succeeded because of two fundamental strengths: their superior technology and because they give the customer what he wants without getting in his way. The former is a strength that is notoriously transient; the latter is half good business sense and half an accident of history. It’s an accident of history because, being a private company in control of its finances and with strong backing, it wasn’t under the same pressure to, er, “over-leverage” its prominance to produce profits by putting advertisers ahead of users. Its peers have not had that option. My point is that these two strengths are much less solid than they appear.

However, like Amazon, Google seems to put a very high premium on R&D and doing everything it can to protect its technological advantage. I wouldn’t be surprised at some huge innovation from them, for example effective and integrated geolocating, that completely changes the search engine market.

All in all, given their current revenues and dominance, I’d be inclined to accept that about a US$1-3B valuation would be appropriate. The _Economist_ is talking much higher numbers, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it IPO into the $US8+B range. But it would be overvalued and very likely would fall from that level over the ensuing year (all else being equal). You heard it here first. :)


Barry 11.01.03 at 2:05 am

“Google has succeeded because of two fundamental strengths: their superior technology and because they give the customer what he wants without getting in his way.”

Keith, nice comment – that second part sums it up so well.


Nick Edwards 11.01.03 at 2:05 am

One of Google’s biggest strength’s is their research culture. Maintaining their search system only takes so much manpower, so a signifigant portion of their workforce is doing some form of research or product development. People interested in seeing the kind of things they’re coming up should look at for a variety of things they’ve developed but don’t know what to do with, and for the beta test of google’s product search engine.

Most of Google’s innovations however are harder to specifically identify, like their state of the art phonetic spell checker.

And of course Google also has the advantage of having built a fairly impressive infrastructure to deal with what is arguably the most difficult distributed computational problem in the world.

Is Google going to be massively overvalued when they go public? Yes. Are they going to stop being profitable anytime soon? Not a chance.


pathos 11.01.03 at 2:12 am

One would assume that the most obvious “growth area” for Google would be to become the next, better “Lexis Nexis”.

If their search features could improve upon Lexis’s, they could either compete with or merge with that company (or a similar co. like Westlaw). If I had a choice between a Lexis search and a Google search of the same documents, I’d pick Google in a heartbeat. And if they could undercut on cost (by being profitable in another area already) . . .

Not saying I’d invest in the IPO, just saying there is room from growth with sufficient capital.


markus 11.01.03 at 2:34 am

no, I’m reading this on Safari. Your point was …? ;)


Maria 11.01.03 at 5:51 am

I haven’t read the economist yet, so apologies if this point is already covered in it.

As far as I understand, Google makes most of its hard cash by selling its search technology to other companies, either to use on their own websites, or for internal applications.

But another great thing about google is that they mark paid placements as advertisements, so you know what you’re getting.


praktike 11.01.03 at 5:53 am

I think Froogle needs some work.

That said, I think MS is bad news users. They love to add “features” above all else…

I think going public is bad news for users, too. Much harder for a pure user experience to shine through if they constantly need to increase shareholder value.


Zizka 11.01.03 at 2:52 pm

So as we speak, MS’s crack team of experts is writing bugs and security holes for Google. I can hardly wait.

I have Windows and WIndows Explorer too, but I have my home page set on Google, and Windows causes me multiple problems. I’d change over except that I’m lazy and not too savvy.


eszter 11.01.03 at 4:47 pm

An important clarification here is the following: stating that “75% of referrals to websites now originate from Google’s algorithms” is not equivalent to saying that all those referrals come from (or even its other-country variations). This is a common misconception and tends to make people think is much more popular than it is in reality.

There are all sorts of Web sites that offer search using Google’s search algorithms. Yahoo contracts with Google, for example (it used to anyway and I’m pretty sure it still does) as do others (e.g. MyWay).

On these other search engines the layout is no longer that cleancut and it’s not always as obvious to know what is sponsored and what isn’t.

All of this is not to say that it is not impressive or significant that one search engine powers so many of the searches, but it is an important distinction to keep in mind.

Another point to consider is that proportion of searches does not say anything about proportion of users. It is possible that a fairly small number of power users account for a large number of searches. These may be the people using Google (or as opposed to other engines. My point here is just to emphasize that the figures quoted here do not mean that the majority of people ever even go to

I’ve written a small piece on this (currently under review, not that it has any obvious publication outlet). If anyone’s interested, feel free to send me a note and I’ll send you a copy. papers~at~eszter-dot-com


jim 11.01.03 at 4:57 pm

Not all folks are happy googling. For instance, there’s this guy.


eszter 11.01.03 at 5:39 pm

Perhaps also of interest here is some findings I have showing that using Google is not so much what’s important in performing successful searches, rather, knowing how to use a search engine is what makes a difference. Of course, there are all sorts of factors to consider (e.g. goal of a search), but it’s an interesting finding, nonetheless. (Of course, I’m pretty biased about considering my findings interesting.:)


yabartleby 11.01.03 at 6:58 pm

All I can say is, Fuci (plural of fucus)! MS – the company that bowdlerises its dictionaries.

I’m using Safari too.


Lawrence Krubner 11.01.03 at 8:25 pm

I’m reading this on Netscape 7.0, which is a great web browser.


jam 11.02.03 at 8:49 pm

Much of this is probably just negotiation. If Microsoft is looking to buy Google, it would make sense for Google to be exploring an IPO and for exaggerated leaks of what an IPO might fetch to be made to reach Microsofts’s ears as a way of leveraging the price up. Contrariwise, Microsoft would want exaggerated rumours of how far their own search technology has advanced to reach Google’s ears as a way of pushing the price down.

Don’t believe a word of any of it. It’s all theater.

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