Google co-founder: No rush for IPO

Despite frenzied speculation of an imminent public offering of the search giant, company co-founder Sergey Brin says he's still casually debating the pros and cons.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
4 min read
SAN JOSE, Calif.--Despite frenzied speculation of an imminent Google public offering, company co-founder Sergey Brin said he's still casually debating the pros and cons with board members and has not yet set a date.

"We are profitable, and we don't need the cash. But it might be nice to have the currency" of a public company, Brin said Wednesday at the Search Engine Strategies conference here. "Still, there are significant management distractions to be a public company."

"That's not to say we're never going to do it. There's a good chance eventually we're going to do it," he said to an audience of about 400 people. Brin, who turns 30 on Thursday, answered questions from Danny Sullivan, editor of industry newsletter Search Engine Watch, which hosts the 5-year-old conference.

Sullivan ticked off a slew of questions on the minds of attending Webmasters, rival search engines, advertisers and financial analysts, who regard Google and its possible initial public offering as a likely savior of the Internet tech market. Wall Street and Silicon Valley have compared a potential Google IPO to Netscape Communications' public offering in the mid-1990s, when its successful opening on the market placed the Internet on the map. Because of Google's global adoration and the money being made in search-engine advertising, analysts speculate that the company would be worth about $2 billion.

"Is there any circumstance in which Google might buy Microsoft?" Sullivan said wryly, setting off laughter in the room. "Or the opposite?"

Brin said: "There are a lot of liabilities in acquiring Microsoft."

Brin acknowledged that many companies over the five-year history of Google have approached it with offers. And while the company has taken each one seriously, he said, Google holds a lot of promise and a buyout is not likely.

Speculation of a Microsoft-Google marriage has peaked in recent months after a series of rival buyouts locked Yahoo, Microsoft and Google in a battle for search dominance. Within the last six months, commercial search provider Overture Services has bought AltaVista and the Web search assets of Fast Search & Transfer. Yahoo bought Inktomi, and then turned around and acquired Overture last month for $1.7 billion.

In regards to Google's rivals, Brin said that many companies have been unsure how to compete in the marketplace, resulting in "trigger finger" acquisitions. But he cautioned that the integration challenges in those buyouts will be substantial, given the companies' complicated histories and product offerings. He defended Google's purchases--of Applied Semantics, Outride and Pyra Labs--as relatively successful because of the small size of each company.

"The whole industry is a little bit crazy right now," Brin said. "I personally prefer the previous generation, when we could go about building our search technology."

This has been evident for Brin and other top executives. They have not made many public appearances in recent months and have declined press interviews.

Google finds itself
Google has changed dramatically in recent years, growing from a spare Web search engine to an index for finding products, catalogs, news; computing math equations; blocking pop-ups; and publishing Web logs. Brin said that despite the changes and questions of what exactly the company is--a technology or media company--it remains a technology company that "tries to apply technology to media."

When asked what Brin finds most significant about the company's recent innovations, he pointed to AdSense, a relatively new advertising service that lets Web publishers sign up to add targeted, sponsored links to their sites. Publishers can add code to their sites that allows Google's technology to analyze the page for appropriate targeted ad text links.

"This is changing Webmasters' lives," Brin said. "They can make money on something that was a hobby, and they don't have to do weird ad deals. I'm hoping that it can help spur the next generation of content on the Web."

In response to the idea that Google has grown too powerful, Brin said that people tend to exaggerate the company's influence on both ends.

Google has run into criticism, for example, that it plays favorites with customers of its Adwords program, or pay-per-click advertising targeted to keyword searches. Some have said that advertisers have sway over their ad representatives to help them get listed in Google's algorithmic search results if they're not in the index. For that reason, people have asked that Google supply some sort of paid support.

Brin said that there are fundamental problems with that solution, including distracting the company from development. Also, if companies are able to pay for inclusion in the index, the results could be tainted.

"On the paid inclusion, you want to keep any kind of payment separate from paid search results," Brin said. "I think it's important to distinguish those things; you don't want to make a change to your ranking functions and your revenue changes."

Brin said that the company is constantly improving search. It tests half a dozen new algorithms a month and implements some subset of those, he said. "We fundamentally work with all the world's knowledge; there are just different ways to approach that.

"People really care about their information--it's their career, it's their health, it's their education, so the impact of Google on the world psyche is much greater."