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Google's 20th anniversary: Breakthroughs but also controversy

The world's biggest search engine is two decades old today. The company’s head of search looks back.

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Members of Google's search team (from left to right): Ben Gomes, Shashi Thakur, David Bailey and Emily Moxley.

James Martin/CNET

When Ben Gomes joined Google in 1999, a year after the company started, he remembers co-founder Larry Page telling him early on that when it came to building their service, search needs to be expansive, and it needs to be fast.

"'Speed matters' was the message, probably as much to us as it was for the user," Gomes said in an interview last week to talk about the anniversary of Google search.

The message resonated -- it's obvious whenever you Google something. Type in a query, and Google's search engine, which turns 20 on Thursday, shows you the number of results and how long it took to get them. Search time today: typically less than half a second.

Today, Gomes runs all of Google search. In a nondescript conference room at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, Gomes talks about the early days and the company's mission. Sitting across from him is Emily Moxley, a nine-year Google veteran who leads product management for the search results page. She remembers Page's obsession with speed, too. "Larry's always been very interested in latency and doing things really fast," she said. "There's stories of him playing with demos, and he'll start counting the seconds as the results get returned."

In the lobby outside the conference room, a screen shows search terms that are trending on Google in real time. At a glance, visitors can see for themselves just how good Google has gotten at analyzing and serving up search data quickly.  

Now Google is the dominant search engine on the planet. Page and co-founder Sergey Brin helped make the internet, which in 1998 was still a hodgepodge of scattered content, more usable and relevant to us average people. Their search service brought information to our fingertips via a simple yet elegant user interface that's still in use today. And it's become such a part of our lives that that we've turned its name into a verb. Today, people do more than 1 billion Google searches each day.

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To celebrate the 20-year mark, Google this week unveiled new features aimed at updating search to tap into how people have changed the way they look for stuff online. New "activity cards" show you related and past searches if you're doing something longer term, like planning a camping trip. A revamped version of Google Images gives you more context around the pictures in the search engine. And on Thursday, the company released a new Google Doodle celebrating 20 years of search and a Google Maps "street view" look at the old garage office that Page and Brin rented from Susan Wojcicki (now CEO of YouTube) in the early days of the company.

But for all the positive impact Google's had, it's also facing some of its biggest challenges today. It's fighting against its platform being used to spread fake news. It's being criticized over a rumored project in China that would deliver a compromised version of search reportedly designed to pass muster with the authoritarian government there. And it's defending itself against allegations by President Donald Trump and conservative lawmakers that its search algorithms are biased.

Gomes wouldn't address any of those topics directly, but when I asked him what Google's learned in 20 years of search, he said the company is striving to improve. 

"We have no illusions that we're perfect. But we're constantly working to make things better," Gomes said. "It's a privilege and responsibility."

Search under fire

Criticism of Google has ratcheted up lately. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google employees had considered tweaking the search engine to surface pro-immigration content after President Donald Trump's travel ban last year that sought to bar immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. In response, Google CEO Sundar Pichai reportedly told employees in a memo, "Recent news stories reference an internal email to suggest that we would compromise the integrity of our Search results for a political end. This is absolutely false."

Much of the strongest pushback against Google has come from Washington. Last month, Trump accused Google of political bias and having a liberal bent. He tweeted that Google's search results are "RIGGED," saying the company is "suppressing voices of Conservatives." He also tweeted a video claiming Google promoted former President Barack Obama's State of the Union addresses every January but not his. Trump added the hashtag #StopTheBias.

Google rejected the president's claim, saying its homepage did promote Trump's address in January. The company also explained it didn't promote either Trump's or Obama's address from their first years in office because those speeches aren't technically considered State of the Union addresses. A screenshot from the Internet Archive, which keeps a record of what appears on web domains, backs up Google's explanation.

When I asked about the allegations of bias, Gomes didn't address it directly. "We're building search for our users," he said. "We're rigorously testing all our changes for our users, to make sure we're giving our users the most relevant information we know how. And that's what we've always done."

When pressed further, he still doesn't get specific. But he does say Google has 10,000 "raters" around the world who evaluate the quality of search results.

I also asked Gomes about Project Dragonfly, Google's reported effort to build a censored search engine for China, after exiting the country in 2010. At the time, Brin, who grew up in the Soviet Union, cited the "totalitarianism" of Chinese government policies as the reason for leaving.

In response, Gomes repeated what the company has already said about the project -- that Google's work regarding China is only "exploratory" and the company is "not close" to launching a search product there. (On Wednesday, though, Keith Enright, Google's chief privacy officer, confirmed during a hearing with the Senate Commerce Committee that there is indeed a Project Dragonfly, but he wouldn't elaborate.)

'More complex'

Even though there are challenges, there's still a sense of pride from Gomes and his lieutenants about building Google search into the powerful tool it is today.

He remembers being sent out to physically fix broken servers in the early days. "I think I fixed minus-three servers," he said, laughing. "Not the best use of engineers' time."

The team also reminisces about the nuances in improving the search engine and the milestones along the way. Gomes mentions breakthroughs in getting the service to account for people's spelling mistakes. Shashi Thakur, vice president of engineering, reflects on the importance of the "Knowledge Graph," Google's web of information on how different things are connected. David Bailey, principal engineer of Google search, talks about launching "Universal Search" in 2007, which took the search engine beyond just showing users 10 blue links, but a blend of listings, news, videos and photos.

And as Google's search engine has evolved, so has the company.

"There's no denying Google's gotten bigger," said Bailey. "It's gotten more complex. Its role in the world has gotten more complex. These things are challenging." 

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