What if there were no Google?

        Science | What If

It's the face of all things digital. Google touches almost everything tech-related, making this page one of the most recognizable across the globe.
It's the face of all things digital. Google touches almost everything tech-related, making this page one of the most recognizable across the globe.
Screenshot by Nathan Chandler

I Google, therefore I am. But what if there were no Google? In our digitally frenzied and tech-saturated world, that question borders on a religious and philosophical query worthy of Socrates (and that guy definitely didn't have a smartphone).

As a search engine and purveyor of many powerful online applications, Google is so pervasive that many of us interact with the company's products all day, every day. And even for those who only use the Web sporadically, online forays are often guided by Google's seemingly omniscient search prowess.

It's hard to say exactly how the world would look without Google, the world's most frequently visited Web site [source: Alexa]. But there are hard numbers that wouldn't exist without this Silicon Valley behemoth. Google is a big company, employing around 30,000 people as of this writing [source: Google]. It also tries to share the wealth; in 2010, Google's charitable giving topped $184 million [source: Google].

Google offers a whole suite of applications (too many to list here), and a lot of them are free. You can use Gmail for e-mail, Docs for sharing all sorts of documents, Maps for navigation, Earth for geographic and topographic information (and even oceanographic maps), Calendar to organize all of your life's activities, Analytics for tracking statistics regarding your Web site and Blogger to set up a blog for both personal and professional purposes. The lineup also includes Google Scholar, Patents, Google + (for social networking a la Facebook), Groups, Finance, and many more.

There's also Image search, which lets you find just about any image that's ever wound up online. And of course, there's the Google search engine, which revolutionized the way we find information on the Web. Google simply offers a lot of ways to accomplish a lot of different tasks, for not a lot of money.

When Google first appeared in 1998, search engines were a matter of personal preference. Some people opted for the visually busy layout of Yahoo. Others liked Webcrawler, Altavista, Dogpile, HotBot, Ask Jeeves or Excite.

But then Google arrived, with its supercharged algorithms that returned more relevant results, and suddenly, it was the fastest and easiest way to find Web-based data. Older search sites located relevant information by finding keywords on Web pages. Google, however, employed its patented PageRank system, which uses dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of criteria to sift through the Web and find the best possible source for "Santa Claus hat for dogs" or whatever else you might be attempting to locate.

The company was following through on its stated mission, which is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," and to be an engine that "understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want."

There's no question that Google has delivered on many of its goals. But where, exactly, would we be without it? We'll ponder that hypothetical situation on the next page.

"Google" Might Still Be a Word Only Math Nerds Know

Google got big because it’s good. No matter what you’re looking for (including fluffy puppies), Google can help you find it -- fast.
Google got big because it’s good. No matter what you’re looking for (including fluffy puppies), Google can help you find it -- fast.
Screenshot by Nathan Chandler

There's no question that the Internet would look different sans Google. Perhaps without the mathematical and programming wizardry of co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, no other company would've developed search savvy on par with Google's. And if no one had created such a search engine, it's hard to say how profoundly different your Web experiences might be.

Maybe the Web would have a much more fractured structure and be harder to navigate, with an untold number of hidden nooks and crannies accessible only to geeks with superior research skills -- in other words, the kind of people who understood how to dig past the limitations of older and more basic keyword-based search engines. Less geeky folks might rely on a site such as Yahoo as their Web portal, using its directories and browsing capabilities to guide surfing, shopping and studying.

Absent Google, the Internet might not have wormed its way so quickly into every aspect of our lives. Maybe, just maybe, the constantly-connected landscape of smartphones and digital dependency wouldn't have expanded to the extent that it has.

Think about it. Google's proficiency and expertise has changed the way you interact with the world around you. Without it, you might have to remember more things, instead of pulling out your phone to Google (as a verb) the instant answer. Because if you had to fiddle with your phone for five minutes (instead of five seconds), there's a good chance you'd either give up or look elsewhere for the answer to your question.

Then again, what if Google had turned into just another rank-and-file search engine that joined so many other tools in the Web’s dustbin? Perhaps without a solid marketing and business plan, another Silicon Valley duo would’ve stolen Google’s momentum and created an entirely different phenomenon. And maybe your Internet experiences would be even better than they are now.

But Google is everywhere, and accessing it is easy anywhere you have Web access. On the next page, find out how Google's omnipresence changes our world.

Google is Everywhere

Google has its tentacles in just about everything related to technology. Mobile devices and business are two more examples.

When it comes to smartphones, Google has transformed this market in a major way. Google's Android operating system, which is designed for mobile devices, is found on around 50 percent of recent phones [source: PCWorld]. Without Android's spread, Apple's iPhone might still have a stranglehold on the smartphone sector.

Businesses might also be different, as they wouldn't be able to rely on ubiquitous AdWords campaigns driven by Google to power their advertising efforts. So many companies depend on AdWords for revenue that Google took in around $28 billion from them in 2010 alone [source: Google].

And of course, without the effectiveness of Google, ordinary students could have a lot more digging to do when it comes to research. They might spend days, not hours, researching a finals paper to make sure they found the best and most relevant sources, plundering the depths of multiple search engines (which might return all sorts of varied and inconsistent results) instead of leaning on the reliability of just one Google. They wouldn't be able to search excerpts from nearly every book ever to grace library shelves via Google Books, the most expansive digitization of books ever.

Without all of those accessible-anywhere Google apps, like Calendar, Docs and Gmail, maybe the idea of storing all of your critical documents online (in "the cloud"), would still be in its infancy or reserved only for the most technically advanced users.

But the cloud keeps spreading thanks to Google. That's in large part due to Google's generous online storage (nearly 8 gigabytes for Gmail alone) and commitment to refining and updating its online apps. Both factors sway users into uploading swaths of their personal and professional lives into Google's (once again, free) products, which continue to chip away at Microsoft's Office market share [source: RescueTime].

Google is simply everywhere, and people seem more than willing to embrace just about any product the company offers. On the next page, you'll see that Google's bubbly and witty approach to tech is one reason that its users keep coming back for more.

The Cult(ure) of Google

Google has successfully interwoven itself directly into the fibers of our society. Case in point: You don't "Yahoo" anything, and you likely don't "Bing" stuff, either. But no one even blinks when you tell them to "Google" a topic or question. Google really is as much a verb as it is a search engine. And without Google, we might be using an equally common (and much less interesting) phrase, like "search it up," when goading our friends to find Web-based answers on their own.

Beyond the name, Google has also affected online and business culture, stressing simplicity and fun. For instance, you've likely seen Doodles. Doodles are graphical changes to the iconic Google logo that appear during special occasions and events. During holidays such as Christmas or Halloween, an appropriately Christmas-y or spooky image appears.

While Doodles harmlessly amuse most visitors, they can cause a ruckus. In 2010, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man, Google created a Doodle that let visitors actually play a bit of the game. So many people played so much Pac-Man that day that one source estimated $120 million in lost productivity [source: PCWorld].

It's not all fun and games for Google, though. The company throws its significant financial heft into social and political causes. Google is making its facilities more environmentally conscious by using less energy, as well as sourcing more electricity from renewable sources like wind power. And around some Google buildings, there are no lawn mowers to keep grass trimmed. Instead, they use goats [source: Google]. These efforts, among many others, burnish Google's green image and push other companies to be more respectful of the environment.

Google has undoubtedly transformed the technological world, and, by extension, affected the way we interact with each other as human beings. Now we Google each other before we meet in person and find the best prices on products all over the planet with a couple of clicks.

No matter how much you love or hate Google, there's little doubt that your life is somehow affected every day by this company. And for that reason alone, let's hope that those holed up in the company's headquarters (the Googleplex) stick to their stated motto: "Don't Be Evil."


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