What Was Google Like in 1999? A Retrospective on the Search Engine Trailblazer

Imagine the internet before Google. Early search engines would take you to a random collection of websites—many rudimentary, out-of-date or irrelevant to what you asked. Information was dispersed across a maze of cramped pages without context. It could be frustrating trying to find answers during the web‘s infancy.

That‘s the landscape two Stanford PhD students aimed to organize when they founded Google in 1998. Through 1999 Sergey Brin and Larry Page refined the company into a respectable startup that would soon make the world’s knowledge accessible.

Let‘s rewind over 20 years to those pioneering days that shaped Google.

Overview: Taming the Wild Internet Frontier

In 1999 the internet was still undomesticated territory. Less than 250 million people globally had access—about 5% of today‘s users. But websites were multiplying rapidly on 1990‘s internet fever.

The amount of information was overwhelming 1990‘s search engines. Their results could be laughably random. Most people relied on human-powered directories like Yahoo to browse the web.

Brin and Page recognized early the need for an organizing system. Page first coined the PageRank algorithm in grad school to mathematically rank sites by relevance. After founding Google, they spent 1999 polishing algorithms while building resources and staff.

What began as a campus project became an ambitious Silicon Valley company preparing to tame the wild worldwide web.

Google‘s Signature Look Debuts

Visually, the Google.com homepage established an identity instantly recognizable today. The brightly colored, playful logo and centered search box formed Google’s signature style from the start.

Company lore credits Page with placing an exclamation point after the name—a nod to his excitement over mathematical precision. The site also carried a “beta” label in 1999 indicating it was still testing in development mode.

Otherwise the interface introduced the minimalism and usability that became Google’s hallmark. While competitors used cluttered portals, Page insisted on simplicity and speed so people “can get in, get out” with answers.

It was a radical concept when many believed internet users preferred hand-holding navigation support. But Google’s clean design made queries more efficient. It was the start of prioritizing access over flashiness that still underlies interfaces today.

When Google Got Doodley

Google Doodles further livened the homepage over time, tracing their origin to Page and Brin’s love of wordplay.

In 1999 artist Dennis Hwang followed instructions to turn the second “o” in Google into a stick figure anticipating Burning Man festivities. Employees expanded on that idea with more artistic takes on the logo for holidays and events.

Notable early editions included celebrating 1993 children’s icon Noddy’s 50th anniversary on August 25th. France’s Bastille Day on July 14th also got a homepage shoutout. These and other efforts began establishing Google Doodles’ tradition of lighting up logos worldwide for whatever seems interesting.

Sparse but Powerful: Early Search Results

Under the decorated logo, Google search results themselves looked spartan back then…but their relevance was revolutionary.

In an era when competitors served 200 web pages max, Google could index 500 million documents by late 1999. Still, a typical search produced only thousands of matches—not the millions common today.

Search listings also lacked descriptions beyond the URL. Yet they outperformed alternatives in precision. Google was among the first applying technology that deduced importance based on links rather networks or abstract popularity.

The sparse blue links held immense power to connect people with meaningful sites. As the beta label dropped later in 1999, Google left testing mode equipped to expand indexes exponentially in coming years.

Pre-Ad Era: Just Search Results

Strikingly different from today, not a single ad appeared alongside 1999 search results. Google remained entirely focused on developing its core technology without advertising distractions or income.

In that era most internet companies aimed for two revenue streams:

  1. Venture capital investments
  2. Selling enterprise software licenses

Google did court VC money from the start. But its founders insisted on providing search to consumers for free. Support would need to come solely from investors initially.

Of course advertising inserted itself shortly after 1999. Once Google incorporated advertising in 2000, profits poured in at unprecedented rates. But in these early days purity of purpose drove progress rather than revenue.

From Stanford Students to Startup

Google founders moved quickly from grad school to garage office in starting their company. They grew even faster hiring actual professionals once venture capital arrived in 1999.

Company FoundedSeptember 1998
Employees at StartAround 10
Employees End of 1999Around 50
Queries/Day End of 199810,000
Queries/Day End of 19993.5 million
Revenue 1998$204,000
Revenue 1999$220,000

While those revenue figures seem shockingly low for the tech titan Google became, they marked impressive first steps. Venture capital mid-year fueled hiring real engineers while query traffic took off.

Regular "TGIF" Q&A meetings accordingly moved from the garage to…not much larger conference rooms. Co-founder Page credits the cramped, candid sessions with preserving startup transparency despite growths. Video footage certainly supports camaraderie among early employees as they laid foundations for the giant to come.

Excite Said No to Buying Google for $1 Million

Today corporate leadership pays good money for reminders not go to the way of Excite in ignoring potential.

As the second largest search engine after Yahoo in 1999, Excite drew buyout offers from major players like Disney and Ticketmaster. Yet Excite CEO George Bell shockingly turned down Google‘s $1 million price tag when Page and Brin approached him that year.

In Fact, Bell rejected another offer of $750,000 from Google investors later in 1999. He clearly lacked vision to grasp how PageRank could help Excite compete with Yahoo as the web grew. Bell quasi-merged Excite into AskJeeves before it was shuttered in 2001.

Imagine if he had accepted those early offers—Excite could have dominated search for decades. Instead the story lives in infamy as one of the biggest missed opportunities in tech history. And Google of course used that $1 million funding to build its own industry reign.

Venture Capital Fuels Googley Growth

As Excite fumbled, 1999 saw Google embrace one common startup funding route with uncommon success. Two of Silicon Valley‘s largest venture firms boosted the search upstart with a combined $25 million investment that June.

The Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia Capital vote of confidence funded large leaps forward in Google‘s capabilities. Suddenly Brin and Page could staff up engineers for improving relevance algorithms and machine learning. Investments in infrastructure expanded Google‘s crawl scope faster over more of the web.

While technologists led the way, the company also hired its first experienced business leaders. With adults bankers and managers now onboard, the founders could lead engineering innovation while others built corporate functions.

From Stanford Dorms to Palo Alto Offices

Before making history, every great company starts somewhere. For Google, the ground floor was actually Susan Wojcicki’s garage in September 1998.

Susan rented her Menlo Park space to Brin and Page early on as newly official Stanford dropouts. The make-do headquarters established Google‘s culture of resourcefulness through Year 1.

But venture backing permitted upgrading in 1999 to an actual Palo Alto office. Their second lease at University and High Streets kept Google at the heart of startup action. Community certainly cultivated big visions.

That quickly felt too small for a quintupling staff count. By late 1999 Google again relocated to more Palo Alto space on Portola Road.

Early locations tipped toward the expanded, eccentric layout of the later Googleplex. But in these days,leasing more room for more people embodied business ambitions taking off. Stanford students were certainly moving on up in the world.

Conclusion: Sowing Seeds for the Future

Engineers and visionaries often change the world from humble beginnings. Microsoft started as two childhood friends selling software. Apple began in a basement and garage.

Likewise, 1999 transported Google from campus thinking experiment to revenue-generating Silicon Valley player laying strong foundations. Their technology worked. Funding poured in. Staff skilled up as office spaces leveled up.

By Year 2 the company would overhaul the advertising world opening profit floodgates. But painstaking progress through Year 1 developed Google’s core DNA as an information access game-changer for people worldwide.

Many factors ultimately grew Google‘s universe-altering reach after 1999. But focusing first on search purity and technology prepared the launchpad for stratospheric success.

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