In the late 1990s, Stanford University computer-science students Larry Page and Sergey Brin began tinkering with a new formula for searching the Internet. Their explosive idea: to scan the rich topology of Internet links to determine a page's popularity. It spawned Google, which offered a quantum leap forward in search technology.
Today, the 31-year-old Page, soft-spoken with slightly graying hair, is deeply involved in charting Google's vision as president of products. BusinessWeek Correspondent Ben Elgin caught up with Page in February to discuss everything from the future of search to his relationship with co-founder Sergey Brin. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: In Google's early days, you folks often spoke of replicating the Star Trek computer.
A: Well, the Star Trek computer doesn't seem that interesting. They ask it random questions, it thinks for a while. I think we can do better than that. You want to have a computer that is smart.
The Web is more of a superlibrarian. Imagine if you had a reference librarian who had all the knowledge of Google but could also answer instantly with all that knowledge. That would really change the world.
Q: Where is search today on an evolutionary scale?
A: People have consistently underestimated the size and importance of search. It's a very, very large space of technologies, usage, and information. We've gone from 30 million to over 3 billion documents in just a small number of years. There's going to be a lot of commercial activity in this space, a lot of companies doing things that are going to be very valuable.
It's something people will care deeply about, because you want to trust your sources of information. If you're doing a medical thing, wondering what's wrong with you, or if you're doing a commercial transaction, you're really going to want unbiased, objective information that's the best you can get.
The ultimate search engine would basically understand everything in the world, and it would always give you the right thing. And we're a long, long ways from that.
Q: Competitors want to build search that simultaneously queries an individual's local computer, e-mail archives, as well as the Internet. Is that something Google aims to do?
A: Our mission is to organize the world's information. Clearly, the more information we have when we do a search, the better it's going to work. There are all sorts of details involved in different kinds of products, including privacy issues. I'd expect us over time to have access to more information.
Q: Would you guys consider integrating with a Linux desktop company?
A: I can't really comment on what we're going to do in the future. One, I don't always know. And a lot of the development we do is very speculative. We probably have 10 things going on for every thing we release.
Q: I ask, because many believe this could be the next major development in search.
A: Predicting breakthroughs is always a bit tricky. I don't think anybody would have predicted the World Wide Web would have been a breakthrough. Most people who were expert in it didn't think that the Web was very well-implemented.
Q: Would it be fair for Microsoft (MSFT) to bundle Internet search onto its desktop?
A: Rather than comment on that, I [would say] search in general is a really, really important thing. And it's a very, very large space. Hopefully, there will be a lot of companies that do interesting things in the search space and really help people find the things they need. Competition is good for it.
Q: Google's brand has been very successful. Some, however, think with increased competition, Google needs to be more proactive about defining its brand. How do you feel about this?
A: We do think about that. We really care about our brand. We really want it to stand for high quality. We want people to be excited about it, for it to be fun.
We would never do a business partnership primarily for brand. We already have a lot of distribution of our brand. We have so many people who use Google every day. Anything we do on our Web sites, like the fun logos we do, huge number of people see that because we're doing over 200 million searches a day.
Q: Google has been slowly building up interaction with users, be it offering spelling suggestions on queries, or your toolbar that squelches pop-up ads. How far does Google need to go with customer interaction?
A: We'd clearly like to have more relationships with our users, in any way that makes sense. Part of what you're seeing, like pop-up blockers, is that Google has been a force for good. We've taken very strong position that we're going to do things that benefit our users.
That's not just saying it, but actually doing things that benefit our users. Being objective, making sure we separate our advertising from our editorial, much as you do. Those kinds of things that our competitors don't always do. Over time, it's becoming more and more understood by people that we're acting in their interests. And that's a very, very powerful thing for our brand.
Q: Google hasn't been all that vocal in spelling out these differences for users, such as your unwillingness to take paid-inclusion ads. Why not?
A: We have that debate internally. Part of our brand is that we're pretty understated in what we do. If you look at other technology companies, they might preannounce things, and it will be a couple years before they really happen, and they don't happen in the way they said they would.
Google tends to release things without announcing them in beta, or whatever. We wait until they get really big and really good, then we start talking about them. And so that's a really different way of doing business.
Q: I understand that before you guys incorporated in 1998, you approached [Yahoo! co-founder] David Filo and asked him if they wanted to buy your technology. True?
A: We did have a number of discussions with different companies about our search technology when we were still students at Stanford. There's a complicated series of discussions you have when you're in that stage. Those things didn't end up happening, and it worked out well for us. I think if those things had happened, it would have worked out well, too.
It's hard to give you too much color on that, except to say we were a bunch of students. We had what we thought was some cool technology, [but] it was at a much earlier state than it is now. The guys at Yahoo (YHOO) were really nice to us.
Q: What initially brought you and Sergey together?
A: We really met through our research interests. We started working together because I was interested in the Web, and he was interested in data-mining. It was sort of a natural fit.
It has been eight years now. Sergey and I get along very well. We've been very, very lucky to have that relationship, and it has benefited the company.
Q: Surely you have some disagreements?
A: We've never come to blows. Clearly, we have a remarkably good relationship. And if you look at successful companies, there are often those types of relationships. And we've had a very good relationship with Eric [Schmidt, Google's CEO] as well.
If you can run the company a bit more collaboratively, you get a better result, because you have more bandwidth and checking and balancing going on. I think Sergey and I have had remarkably similar views on things, largely because we've spent a lot of time together. I can usually predict where we're going to disagree, and we make sure to talk those things out explicitly.