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Start-up to superpower

Google, a household name and Web money machine, is 10 years old. As new fields beckon, challenges loom.

September 08, 2008|Jessica Guynn | Times Staff Writer

Google Inc. has changed the world.

The way we learn, buy things, are entertained, view ourselves and everyone else -- all have been transformed by Google, which was incorporated in California 10 years ago Sunday. In the process, it has become one of the most powerful companies on the planet.

It all began with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two Stanford University graduate students who turned their research project into an Internet technology company. They bet that their search engine could run better than the rest and help, as they say, organize the world's information.

They called it Google, a play on the mathematical term "googol" -- a 1 followed by 100 zeros. With its multicolored logo and stunningly quick results, the search engine not only became a pop culture hit but created one of the most active young verbs in our vocabulary.

Along the way, the now-thirtysomething founders recruited Eric Schmidt as chief executive, made gobs of money and built a 21st century advertising empire on the simple notion of selling plain text ads based on search terms.

The Mountain View, Calif., company's unusual perks and practices -- free food and a dog-friendly campus, one day a week for employees to spend on experimental projects of their choice, refusal to give financial guidance to Wall Street, funding of space travel and alternative energy -- have become a case study in corporate quirk.

Yet as Google enters its second decade, there is concern about its dominant influence on the Internet and the personal information it collects. Google handles nearly two-thirds of online search queries, attracting the scrutiny of regulators and privacy watchdogs.

Google says it's guided by a moral motto: "Don't be evil." It will have to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions without alienating its 650 million users or tarnishing its golden brand, while keeping its employees happy.

Its goals far exceed Internet search and advertising. This digital powerhouse has already given us Google Earth, Google News and Gmail. Now it is digitizing health records and books, selling business software on the Internet and trying to extend its online supremacy to mobile phones.

Google also has high hopes for the money-making potential of its online video sharing site, YouTube, which it bought for $1.65 billion in 2006, and this year's $3.2-billion acquisition of DoubleClick Inc., which displays ads across the Web.

Microsoft Corp. and other rivals are trying to check its ambitions. And media giant Viacom Inc. sued Google for $1 billion, accusing YouTube of copyright infringement.

Most worrisome for investors, who have watched Google's stock tumble nearly 40% since its record high in November, the fastest-growing company in history is finally showing signs of slowing as the U.S. economy is doing the same.

For all its success, Google depends on one cash cow, search advertising, and the promise of other initiatives remains just that. The company that started life as a scrappy start-up will succeed in the next decade if, as a much larger and complex organization, it can continue to deliver the innovation that marked its first decade, observers say.

That's precisely what Google intends to do, says Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president for search products and user experience.

"From my earliest conversations in the summer of 1999, we have spent our time brainstorming about the future," Mayer said. "We aren't taking a lot of time to reflect on the past 10 years. We are much more focused on the next 10 years."

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jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Google at a glance

Founded: September 1998 by Larry Page, 35, and Sergey Brin, 35

Headquarters: Mountain View, Calif.

CEO: Eric Schmidt

Employees: Nearly 20,000

Founders' net worth:

$19 billion each

People who use its services: 650 million

2007 revenue: $16.6 billion

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Source: Times research

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Inside: Peering into Google's future : Google at a glance : Advertisers slam Yahoo connection : Page C3

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