Google, the global search engine, logs on to $15bn fortune in just five years

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The Independent Online

For a long time, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were dismissed as the johnny-come-latelies of the internet revolution. They wanted to start a search engine at a time when Yahoo! and Altavista had already seized the limelight. They were looking for venture capital when most of the money for internet start-up companies had already been allocated. They claimed to have stumbled on the Big Idea - the "killer app", in Silicon Valley jargon - at a time when every two-bit dot.commer was claiming the same thing.

But now nobody can argue with Google, their fabulously successful product, which has not only blown every other search engine out of the water and survived the dot.com meltdown intact, but has entered the common lexicon and popular culture. When the news broke yesterday that Google was at last contemplating a public share offering, it had a rejuvenating effect on Silicon Valley, which has been stuck in the doldrums for three years.

It felt, in other words, like 1999 all over again.

Financial consultants in the San Francisco area talked of taking a new generation of internet companies to market. Even the staidWall Street Journal predicted that the floating of Google would be the most valuable share offering since the tech bubble burst. With so many reasons to thank Messrs Brin and Page, few were begrudging the Stanford University graduates the £3bn they may share by cashing in.

Brin and Page, who started Google in a Silicon Valley garage five years ago, have a track record of taking their time. They spent more than two years picking a chief executive officer - so long, in fact, that one of their key backers, Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, threatened to pull out if they didn't hurry up. "I felt I grew tusks," Mr Moritz said at the time. Yet, at 30, they were recently ranked eighth and ninth in Fortune magazine's richest under-40s (valued conservatively at £531m each).

Brin, who was born in Moscow, and Page, the son of a Michigan University profes-sor, met in 1995. Backed by family and friends, they started work on Google in 1998.

Admittedly, they have had to negotiate some rocky territory, figuring out how to survive when the dot.com world was falling apart, and how to protect the impartiality of their search engine as they introduced advertising and weathered the complaints of competing commercial interests.

In doing so, they have earned the unqualified admiration of their peers. Google (the name derives form Googol, the term for a number starting with one followed by 100 zeros) handles as many as 75 per cent of all internet search requests - about 200 million a day, according to the company's own figures. "Googling" people has become second nature to millions of computer users. When the big-money question gets asked on the US version of the quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, tens of thousands of TV viewers "Google" it. There is even a game, "Google whacking", where contestants try to enter two words that will yield only one response.

Everything about the company strives to be innovative. Its offices, nicknamed the Googleplex, are filled with toys to give employees a break - everything from a pool table to a baby grand piano. The company provides free, health-conscious gourmet food at its in-house cafeteria, after conducting extensive tests on the resulting savings in employee time and health insurance costs.

Google employs only top engineers and programmers and subjects them to a rigorous interview process. In exchange it offers extraordinary perks including skiing trips and generous maternity and paternity packages.

It also encourages new thinking in every way it can. Company engineers are grouped into committees and encouraged to compete with each other for the most cutting- edge new projects. Hence the unusual approach to advertising, which is intimately linked to Google's pioneering method of searching out webpages according to their popularity and inter-relationship, not just according to keywords.

This approach is what has accounted for almost all of Page and Brin's success. One early investor, Andy Bechtolsheim of Sun Microsystems, was so impressed that he wrote them a $100,000 (£60,000) cheque on the spot. The method was then augmented by the speed with which Google managed to present its results. "Good algorithms" is how Monica Henzinger, head of Google's research department, once explained it.

Nothing, as yet, is official. The news was broken by the Financial Times, which reported that Google executives had been meeting investment bankers and considering the possibility of an electronic share auction, rather than a conventional public share offering. The flotation, estimated to be worth between $15bn and $25bn, probably wouldn't take place before March.

Subsequent reports have indicated that Google is conducting an interview process to select its financial representatives and has, to date, trimmed its list of investment houses to about half a dozen contenders. Google itself, which likes to play its business cards very close to its chest, has made no comment.

The excitement is palpable, as are the inevitable misgivings. The computer geeks, who have always been suspicious of the money men, wasted no time yesterday in voicing the suspicion that Google was selling out. "Didn't we learn anything from the 90s?" asked one poster on the Slashdot website. "I mean, there is no reason for Google to go public other than greed. They are making plenty of money on their own right now and I doubt that they are in need of cash for business purposes."

Nobody, though, could accuse the company of rushing into a decision. Rumours of a possible share offering have been circulating for more than a year, fuelled in part by the extreme reluctance by company officers to give interviews to the press. (Initial public offerings, under US law, entail a lengthy no-comment period in the run-up to a share flotation.)

One big question raised by the possibility of a public offering is the issue of confidentiality. For now, Google keeps the precise nature of its search technology a closely guarded secret.

It is also super-discreet about its financial performance and ownership structure. Financial analysts looking at its base of about 100,000 advertisers estimate it clears some $150m in annual profits on revenues of about $500m.

That secrecy would, of course, be lifted if the company went public.

DOT.COM DEALS

CHARLIE MUIRHEAD: Nicknamed the "genius in jeans" Muirhead, 21, set up Orchestream, providing software to the telecoms industry. At the peak of the boom, Orchestream had limited revenues but a value of nearly £1bn. Mr Muirhead's business went flat and, last year, admitted to financial irregularities and was sold in December 2002 for £7.9m. Mr Muirhead is now involved with another technology firm.

GEOFFREY CHAMBERLAINE: Chamberlaine, 61, stumbled into the tech boom via a few investments in computer games companies. His stockbroking firm Durlacher backed such successes as Autonomy and Demon Internet and some more flash-in-the-pan dot.coms such as 365 Corporation and Nothing-ventured.com. At its peak, Durlacher was valued at £2bn. Earlier this year it was valued at £7m. Mr Chamberlaine and his brother Graham quit last May, taking £2.7m in investments.

ROBERT BONNIER: The Dutch-born entrepreneur appeared to have pulled off a coup in 2000 when Scoot, the online rival to Yellow Pages he set up five years earlier won the backing of media giant Vivendi Universal. Scoot shares soared - valuing the company at more than £2bn and Bonner, 32, at £140m - before they fell sharply. Bonnier resigned as chief executive of Scoot in July 2001 with a pay-off of £320,000.

DR MIKE LYNCH: Dr Mike Lynch, 35, almost became a billionaire at the height of the technology boom in 2000 when his company, a Cambridge-based data retrieval software group was valued at £5bn. He cashed in £50m of shares in 2000 and his remaining stake in the company is said to be worth an estimated £40m.

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