To many people, Google is the Internet. The first thing they do when they go online is fire up their browser, head to Google, and start searching.
It's easy to forget that things weren't always this way. The company was founded in 1998 and became the largest search engine on the Internet in 2000, so in the grand scheme of things, the site is a relatively new phenomenon.
There were plenty of search engines around before Google burst on the scene, some of them still in existence, and some of them all but forgotten? Internet old-timers may remember when Alta Vista was the king of the search engines among those who prized fast, accurate searches.
It took Google only two years from launch to becoming the most popular search site on the Internet. What happened? Why did Google become so popular?
This is one instance of where better technology trumped marketing. Google became more popular because it was far better than any other search site, and word quickly spread by word of mouth.
So what was Google's "secret sauce"? It certainly wasn't the interface. Google's page is about as simple as it comesin essence, just a search box.
The secret to Google's speed and accuracy are the algorithms it uses when it searches. It uses many factors to determine which are the most relevant pages that match your search, including how popular the page is, where the search term is found within the page, and similar rules. Google's breakthrough was that it doesn't stop at only considering the page's popularity. It also looks at the quality of pages that link to that page. So if there are many well-regarded popular pages that link to a site, that site will be considered more important than a site that has less-important, less-popular pages linking to it.
Google started as a search engine, but it's become much more than that. It's practically its own universe. It has sites for helping you buy things online (Froogle), a mapping site (Google Maps), an email service (Gmail), and much more. New services are introduced practically every month.
If you do a lot of searches on Google, and use many Google services, Google can quickly know a good deal about you. One search term by itself might not mean much. But how about 10? Twenty? Five hundred? By the time you enter 500 searches, and click on thousands of results, the site could very easily put together a pretty comprehensive profile about you. Do you search frequently for information about high-blood pressure? Do you click on sites that criticize the president? What kind of entertainment do you search for? In a very short time, your searches can build up a fairly definitive profile about you.
All this is not to say that Google uses this information for nefarious purposes, or even that they necessarily gather this information. Google doesn't keep track of all your searches, unless you specifically tell it to do that. So why do it? Because it lets you re-visit that list, and makes it easy to keep going back to searches you've already done, or even search within those searches.
To date, Google doesn't necessarily track everything that it could about you. And it doesn't create personal profiles about you, to sell to the highest bidder. But there are those who worry it might in the future.