Part of a series on the effects of some of the biggest U.S. tech companies on the app economy.
The social media website Reddit has styled itself as the “front page of the internet” for years. However, that’s not technically or practically true; in fact, for 68.7% of you, the front page of the internet is Google. Literally synonymous with conducting a search of the World Wide Web, Google is the unchallenged king of internet search with a market share of 92%, making it the most visited website in the world.
Started by Stanford students Sergei Brin and Larry Page in 1998, Google Search initially ran on a very simple process: the more times a website was linked to by other websites, the more important it was. The more important a website, the higher it should be placed in search results. The algorithm for doing so, named “PageRank” after Larry Page, is now in the public domain and taught in intro linear algebra courses across the country. Over time, Google’s search algorithm got more intricate as they started to promote individualized search results, but the same basic concept of ranking websites by their importance remains. Today, a search for “the App Association” on Google delivers 1.3 billion results in 0.6 seconds.
Google hasn’t yet managed to completely change the way we approach and absorb information, but it is affecting it. The time and effort spent searching for the answer to a given question in books—as we’ve done for millennia—can not compare with the relatively minuscule effort it takes to Google the question. Google immediately provides you with the answer to any question, no matter how specific. If you were looking for the place where the transistor was invented (Bell Labs) in a book, you’d likely have to sift through chapters of information. Google acts as a glossary or index for all of the information on the internet—instead of searching to find information, it’s given readily, like the answers in the back of a textbook. That indexing trains people to look for specific information in everything that they interact with, be it a presentation, a book, or even a blog post. In this series on the impact of the FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) companies, we’ve given interesting statistics on the impact of these companies. These statistics are meaningful because they appeal to the Google-trained part of our brains that latches onto efficiently indexed information. The next time you’re watching a talk or a presentation, think about the pieces of it that grab your attention and try and compare them to the new digital literacy that Google Search perpetuates. Perhaps most importantly, it is this legacy of hooking information together to create a truly effective search engine that led to the big data-driven nature of Alphabet’s (Google’s ownership entity’s) other products, a feature that helps differentiate them from competitors. For example, the overwhelming majority of Alphabet’s revenue (about 84%) comes from advertising—Google’s true business. Because of the massive amounts of data the company gleans from its users, it can allow companies to target ads to consumers accurately, in effect forcing businesses to become fluent in digital marketing to stay ahead of the competition. Businesses can pay to be advertised at the top of search results for specific services or items, and because Google is the go-to search tool for most of the world, that edge is essential for succeeding in crowded and competitive markets.
On top of everything else, Google also provides the world’s most popular phone operating system, Android. In an earlier edition of this blog series, we spoke about the impact that Apple’s App Store has on the developer community. Android, the Google equivalent of iOS, has had a different effect – allowing billions around the world to use smartphones cheaply and effectively. Around 86% of the world’s estimated 2.5 billion smartphone users use Android, and with an average handset selling price of $202 compared to $610 for the iOS handset, the iPhone, it’s easy to understand why. Because Android is completely open source, it also allows developers to easily develop for the phones (sometimes to the detriment of users).
For all of the companies worthy of a letter in the FAANG acronym, it’s important to try and think through their effects on both the digital economy and—because their reach is so deep and wide-ranging—worldwide culture. The next time you Google something, think about the possibilities unlocked by the sheer volume of data generated through that search bar. Google’s history as a search engine driven first and foremost by the sheer volume of available data—leading in turn to its unprecedented ad business—helped it emerge as a credible platform competitor, offering a product that is cheaper (if less robust) and fundamentally different from its competitors’.