It has become part of the Silicon Valley lore. Inside a rented garage in Menlo Park, California, USA, two Stanford University students created what became the world’s most prominent search engine. But don’t call Google Search founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin forward-thinking. They actually just wanted to reverse-engineer the World Wide Web.

The entire web, Page theorized, was founded on the premise of citation. When he looked at a webpage, he wanted to know which pages—and how many—were linking back to it. Brin was drawn to the idea’s complexity and scale, so the duo built a crawler that would count and qualify each of those incoming links. They called the project BackRub.

90.8%

Share of all internet searches conducted via Google platforms

10,000

Number of search queries processed by Google per day in 1998

3.5 billion

Number of search queries processed by Google per day in 2019

3,234

Number of improvements Google made to its search algorithm in 2018—an average of nearly 9 per day

Existing search engines, such as AltaVista and Excite, returned results—many of them irrelevant—based on how often a keyword appeared on a page. Page and Brin took a different tack, developing an info-ranking algorithm, dubbed PageRank, that took into account not just what is linking to what, but also the importance of what’s linking to what, by analyzing link counts at every rung in the citation ladder.

Not only was BackRub superior to its search predecessors, it was also self-scaling. As the web grew, so would the links for PageRank to analyze. With this in mind, Page and Brin renamed their search engine after googol, the term for the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeroes, and released the first version of Google on the Stanford website. They began improving their product immediately, adding full-text search and more pages to Google’s index. They rode the wave of continuous development to their first round of funding, and in September 1998, Google Inc. launched to the public.

Two decades later, Google owns more than 90 percent of the internet search market. Others, such as Microsoft’s Bing and the privacy-focused DuckDuckGo, have tried, but no viable competitor has emerged.

Dominance doesn’t mean Google’s project teams are resting on their laurels. They’ve launched significant algorithm updates—predictive searches, localization, web spam avoiders and even a precursor to semantic search—at a steady clip. Of course, the biggest sign of their influence may be the way web search itself is now described: “Google it.”