Google and the Power of Myth

The search giant has yet to live up to its image as a revolutionary force.
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What if

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

hadn't happened? Would the world be much different?

One year after the highest-profile tech IPO since

Netscape

hit the market in 1995, the stock remains one of the most closely watched in the tech sector. It's attracted $80 billion from investors lured by the company's promise to organize the world's information. That in turn has generated countless hours of debate on the stock's proper value.

The IPO itself had far-reaching effects beyond Mountain View, Calif. It cleared out much of the stench keeping investors from the tech IPO pipeline. Eventually, it invited speculative trading back into tech shares -- first into Google, then into other stocks like

Baidu.com

(BIDU) - Get Report

. And it woke the world to something that Google had known for years -- search is a very big, very influential business.

But in some respects, the Google IPO has made bigger shockwaves than Google's own innovations. Take Google's greatest (or greatest-known) innovation to date: PageRank, or the family of algorithms that allows the Web pages themselves to "vote" on each other's relevance according to the links among them.

Developed nearly a decade ago, PageRank vaulted the realm of search from the anarchic method of text-based searches into something resembling a more orderly democracy.

Looking back, this has been one of the biggest innovations reshaping the Internet. But

legend has it that Sergey Brin and Larry Page merely reverse-engineered the Web as conceived by its original architect, Tim Berners-Lee.

This was no small feat, of course, but it's also hard to imagine that other smart folks wouldn't have tried this themselves -- reverse-engineering the work of geniuses is standard practice among scientists.

Brin and Page's own genius was to stumble on this idea at the very moment when most everyone else thought search technology would be rendered irrelevant by portals such as

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

or

Excite

.

In recent years, Google has triumphed less from presenting its own ingenious ideas than from perfecting those of others. The past decade's other great leap forward in search technology came in the ability to monetize it.

GoTo.com

, the brainchild of inventor Bill Gross, found a way to let advertisers bid on keywords, a system that is now in use in every major search engine. GoTo evolved into

Overture

, which Yahoo! bought in 2003.

Google developed its own take on Overture, and seems to have improved on it. Search revenue at Google is growing at a much faster clip than at Yahoo!, despite Overture's pioneering role in matching advertisers with search-engine users.

Google's Rank and File

And that sums up Google's contribution to search in the years since PageRank. It hasn't created as many new ideas as it's bettered existing ones. It's been most successful as a catalyst propelling the development of emerging innovations into more widely adopted and often better-functioning technologies.

In areas such as video search and search on mobile devices, its rivalry with Yahoo! has created a spirit of competition that is speeding development on both ends.

Beyond search, Google has a mixed track record in innovation. It's helped to popularize and expand ideas such as Web mail, online maps and the desktop toolbar, daring others to match or exceed the improvements it brought to both.

But in other areas, such as Google Print, the company has arguably slowed down a promising initiative through its reluctance to work alongside copyright holders.

None of these developments can, outside the realm of public relations, be said to be changing the world in any deep way. Most Internet users probably don't notice the difference between Google's search engine and one powered by

Inktomi's

technology in the mid-1990s.

And yet most people can tell you the difference between life with or without automobiles, televisions and so on. Google has made business easier for online advertisers and content producers such as bloggers -- which is nice, but can't really be called world-changing.

Google is a young company, and it's always been the most demure about its potentially more revolutionary projects. So it's quite possible that the search giant has something big up its sleeve that could truly fulfill its constant talk about changing the world for the better.

And there are signs that something big is afoot. Google has $2.5 billion in cash and short-term investments, yet, on the day before its IPO's one-year anniversary, it

teasingly filed to sell another $4 billion worth of shares in a secondary offering. The money is for "general corporate purposes" -- including acquisitions, the company said.

Strategically spent, $6.5 billion buys a lot of world-changing technology. Google could, like Yahoo!, sink a billion or so into an emerging market like China. But there are recent reports that it's up to something bigger.

Om Malik at

Business 2.0

noted recently that Google "has quietly been shopping for miles and miles of 'dark,' or unused, fiber-optic cable across the country from wholesalers such as New York's AboveNet."

Google watchers have speculated for years about what the company could do with the vast private network it has steadily built up. Malick's own speculation is that Google could take on broadband giants like

Comcast

(CMCSA) - Get Report

by offering free wireless access around the country, selling ads that could target a user's exact location.

Google never comments on such speculation. But if the company wants to fulfill its constant rhetoric about changing the world, it needs to come up with a better act than standing on somebody else's shoulders.