Sam Singer: The market's next monster

BY SAM SINGER: TAKE TWO

Published May 31, 2004

In 1995, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two
young, vibrant computer science students at Stanford University put
their Ph.D work on hold in pursuit of a common vision. Brought
together by similar research interests in the World Wide Web and
data mining, these technological pioneers combined ingenuity with
idealism to craft one of the most remarkable contrivances of the
20th century. Their brainchild, Google Inc., has advanced to become
the world’s most expansive data gathering instrument and has
forged an innovative path for the future of global information
acquisition. Sadly, a recent decision to take the company public
risks forsaking the user-focused romanticism that inspired the
search engine’s architects and earned them their fortunes.
The forthcoming initial public offering, while almost certainly
lucrative, risks rupturing the ideological foundations that helped
spawn Google’s success.

Sam Singer

Page and Brin descended upon Silicon Valley in the peak of the
mid-’90s venture capital craze with the avant-garde of
net-technology — a groundbreaking and ingeniously resourceful
web-searching apparatus. Hurdling past the primordial word-matching
devices employed by the majority of search engines at the time,
Google’s novel approach to Internet queries proved to be a
cut above the rest. By scanning the Internet for germane references
to a particular URL, also known as “backlinks,” Page
and Brin were able to develop an algorithm to determine a
page’s pertinence to the set of search terms. Effectively,
the program’s engineers were able to gauge a website’s
relevancy by its popularity — a pipe dream for any other
engine at the time.

In supplementing the company’s apparent technical
superiority, the co-founders further distinguished their handiwork
from competitors by declining to allow sites to purchase potential
web-listings. This decision, while limiting short-term revenue,
helped ensure prospective patrons and investors alike that search
listings would be arranged by importance — not auctioned off.
The combination of Google’s imaginative search criterion with
its refusal to permit paid inclusion demonstrated the user-friendly
benevolence its creators had hoped to project. But is
Google’s goodwill sustainable?

The combination of a swelling tech market and an aggregate
decline in the reliance on Google’s meta-search capabilities
has knocked the profit margin cushion out from under the search
engine giant. With the entrance of fierce and tech-savvy
competitors, Google’s high-principled pedestal is beginning
to wobble. Most notably, the engine no longer red flags promotional
pages that infiltrate search results, a clear concession to the
net-marketing lobby. Some contend that we have only witnessed the
very first of what will be a slippery slope of profit-seeking
reforms — one that will destroy Google’s image as a
bastion of web-searching propriety.

Last month, Google set off an economic sonic boom on Wall Street
when it announced its plan to hold an IPO. Initial public offerings
often breathe new life into faltering corporations and can even
further rejuvenate already progressing ones. Indeed, public
shareholders can act as a rousing and motivational force to
increase efficiency, elevate profits and keep management on its
toes.

At the risk of over generalizing, it should be noted that
shareholders tend to hold little patience for a company’s
long-term profit plan and are usually only appeased when a plus
sign appears next to the stock listing. Transferring ownership to
the public sphere will place even more pressure on executives to
shed integrity for immediate market gratification — and the
paid inclusion exemption will be the first policy to go. The
attendant consequences of excluding offbeat or minority opinions
from the world’s largest information access system because
they lack financial backing need not be overstated. A web page
disassociated from Google is effectively excluded from popular
discourse. Before handing ownership of the world’s largest
information library over to profit-driven shareholders, Page and
Brin need to do some soul searching. What was once an access system
embedded with sentiments of social conscience is now at risk of
becoming the market’s next bottom-line driven monster.

Singer can be reached at "mailto:singers@umich.edu">singers@umich.edu.