How Google Works

By: Jonathan Strickland & John Donovan

What began as a project by two students in Stanford University's Ph.D. program is now one of the most influential companies in the world. Adam Berry/Getty Images

What began in the late 1990s as a research project helmed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two students in Stanford University's Ph.D. program, is now one of the most influential companies in the world: Google. At first, the students' goal was to make an efficient search engine that gave users relevant links in response to search requests.

While search is still Google's core purpose, the company now provides services and goods ranging from (among many) email and photo storage to productivity software (the Google Docs suite), the internet browser Chrome, the mobile operating system Android, Chrome laptops and the Pixel mobile phone. Google has evolved from that two-man enterprise into a multibillion-dollar corporation. In 2015, it restructured and is now the jewel of parent company Alphabet, making it one of the biggest and richest companies in the world.


Google has long been the most visited site on the Web, too, making the company's influence on commerce and culture undeniable [source: Lifewire]. Practically every webmaster wants his or her site listed high on Google's search engine results pages (SERPs) because that almost always translates into more traffic. Google has also acquired other Internet companies, ranging from blogging services to YouTube. For a while, the company's search technology even powered rival companies' search engines: Yahoo relied on Google searches for nearly four years until developing its own search engine technologies in 2004 [source: Google].

In this article, we'll learn about the backbone of Google's business, its search engine. We'll also look at other services Google offers. Then we'll take a quick peek at some of the tools, both software and hardware, that Google has developed over the years. We'll also learn more about the equipment Google uses to keep its massive operation running. Finally, we'll take a closer look at Google, the company.

The Google Search Engine

Google search
The Google search engine remains the cornerstone of just about everything the company does. Carsten Koall/Getty Images

As large as Google has grown, as many changes as it has seen, its primary purpose is still clear: To help users find what they want on the internet. And that's where Google's search engine shines.

Pandu Nayak has been with the company for more than 14 years and is now the vice president for search.


"One kind of primary thing that has not changed, in those 14 years, which I value tremendously, is this idea that we built search for users, we built search because people come to Google for things that matter in their lives," Nayak says. "[It] is our deep, deep responsibility to give them great results, great answers great experiences, and help them go about their lives more effectively.

"This focus, which really goes back to the mission statement ... is still one that drives us through all of these changes."

Google's search engine is a powerful tool, but the internet is a big place. It's sometimes hard to find what you're looking for. Nayak and many others throughout the company work with the idea that getting you what you're after — figuring out what you want — is their responsibility, no matter what you type into the search bar. They study language and intent, incorporate machine learning and artificial intelligence and note every search that is undertaken, all in an effort to make it easier on the user.

It started years ago, and continues today, as the Google search engine has learned the difference between, say, Penélope Cruz and the Chevy Cruze, as it's figured out that in some cases, people use the word "change" and "convert" for the same action.

Nayak has gone through the implementation of spell correction, and the synonym finder, and universal search, which gives users not only web pages that they may be looking for, but photos, videos and more.

When he joined the company, he (like many others) thought Google worked astoundingly well. But as expectations for the search engine — and the company — have grown, expectations have changed. Or converted.

"Nobody, absolutely nobody comes and tells me that, 'Oh, you know the other day, I did a search and, you know, it worked really well,'" Nayak says with a laugh. "No one says that.

"Our endeavor is that you don't need any special expertise in searching. We want to be able to find ways to understand what it is you're looking for ..."

All that said, Google can help narrow down what you're looking for with specialized searches. You can browse through different categories that pertain to your keywords, including:

  • Images
  • Maps
  • News articles or video footage
  • Products or services you can purchase online
  • Content in books
  • Videos
  • Scholarly papers

For example, if you search for the term "Planet Earth" in the news category, the results will include only news articles that contain those keywords. The results will look very different from Google's normal SERP.

Like all search engines, Google uses a special algorithm to determine its search results. While Google shares some facts about its algorithm, the specifics are a company secret. This helps Google remain competitive with other search engines and reduces the chance of someone finding out how to abuse the system.

Google uses automated programs called spiders or crawlers, just like most search engines, to help generate its search results. Google has a large index of keywords that help determine search results. What sets Google apart is how it ranks its results, which determines the order Google displays results on its search engine results pages. Google uses a trademarked algorithm called PageRank, which assigns each Web page a relevancy score.

A Web page's PageRank depends on a few factors:

  • The frequency and location of keywords within the Web page: If the keyword appears only once within the body of a page, it will receive a low score for that keyword.
  • How long the Web page has existed: People create new Web pages every day, and not all of them stick around for long. Google places more value on pages with an established history.
  • The number of other Web pages that link to the page in question: Google looks at how many Web pages link to a particular site to determine its relevance.

Out of these three factors, the third is the most important. Because Google looks at links to a Web page as a vote, it's not easy to cheat the system. The best way to make sure your Web page is high on Google's search results is to provide great content so that other sites will link to your page. The more links your page gets, the higher its PageRank score will be. If you attract the attention of sites with a high PageRank score, your score will grow faster.

Google Products and Services

Gmail, Google's free Web-based email program, is perhaps the company's best known service outside its search engine. Chesnot/Getty Images

As Google has grown, the company has added several new services. Some are designed to help make Web searches more efficient and relevant, while others seem to have little in common with search. With many of its services, Google has entered into direct competition with other companies.

Google's Gmail, a free Web-based email program, is perhaps the company's best known service outside its search engine. When Gmail first launched, Google limited the number of users who could create accounts. The first group of users could invite a limited number of people to join, and so Gmail invitations became a commodity. Today, anyone can sign up for a free Gmail account.


Gmail gives you the option of organizing email into conversations. This means that when you send an email to someone and he or she replies, both emails are grouped as a thread in your inbox. This can make it easier to follow the flow of an email exchange.

Another free program from Google is Google Docs, a productivity software suite. It includes word processing (Google Docs), spreadsheets (called Google Sheets) and a presentation program (Google Slides). Creating a Google Docs account is free. You can share documents on Google Docs, which allows friends to view and make changes to documents. All of your documents are stored on Google's servers, where you can share them and access them wherever there's an internet connection.

Other Google Products

Google products
A few of the more popular Google products include Google Maps and the internet browser Chrome. Chesnot/Getty Images

Google Maps uses several map sources as well as satellite data from DigitalGlobe and others to create interactive maps. Millions use Google Maps on their smartphones every day for driving directions.

Google Maps has several view modes. The map view is a basic road map, satellite view overlays a road map on top of scalable satellite photos of the region, terrain view creates a topographic map with a road map overlay, and traffic view uses red, yellow and green to indicate congested major roadways in the area. Street view mode is available in many places to view images taken from street level. You can navigate through a place with street view by clicking on arrows in the image, and rotate the view 360 degrees.


You can also use Google Maps like a search engine to find a business, such as "HowStuffWorks, Atlanta, Georgia," which will show you our office's location. If you're in the mood to eat sushi in San Francisco, California, you can type "sushi, San Francisco," and with a click, Google Maps will display a map of the city with several sushi restaurants tagged.

A product related to Google Maps is Google Earth, an interactive digital globe that features satellite images, 3D views and information on millions of places around the planet.

Google launched an internet browser, Chrome, in 2008, and it has quickly become the dominant desktop browser [source: StatCounter]. A year earlier, the company released the Android mobile operating system — Google search, Chrome and Google Maps are integrated into it — which now commands the lion's share of worldwide market share of mobile operating systems [source: StatCounter]. In 2017, Google announced that more than 2 billion mobile devices around the world were running on Android. [source: Google].

In 2007, the company acquired video sharing site YouTube, now the second-most popular site on the Web (behind [source: Lifewire]. Google also has made forays into hardware with its own branded phone (the Pixel), a device that streams music and video to your TV (Chromecast), easy-to-use laptop computers (Chromebooks) and "smart" devices (like the Google Nest thermometer and Google Home) that connect to the internet to help with everyday life.

How Google Makes Money

Googlers brainstorming
Google has multiple ways of generating revenue, including Google Pay, Google Ads, Google AdSense and Google Analytics. Google

Google has multiple ways of generating revenue beyond private investment or selling shares of its stock. Google uses several methods to partner with merchants and advertisers: Google Pay, Google Ads, Google AdSense and Google Analytics are some.

Google Pay (formerly Google Wallet and, before that, Google Checkout) is a service designed to make purchases easier for both the consumer and the retailer. On the consumer end, users create a free Google Pay account, entering credit or debit card numbers, which Google stores in a secure database. When the user visits a retailer with Google Pay, either online or in a brick-and-mortar store, he or she can use Pay and Google facilitates the transaction using a "virtual account number" — what Google describes as an "alias" for your real card number. Google doesn't charge a fee to the business or the consumer. With Google Pay in a real-world store, consumers can use their smartphones to pay, leaving their credit cards at home.


The main way Google generates its revenue is through a pair of advertising services called Ads and AdSense. With Ads, advertisers submit ads to Google that include a list of keywords relating to a product, service or business. When a Google user searches the Web using one or more of those keywords, the ad appears on the SERP in a sidebar. The advertiser pays Google every time a user clicks on the ad and is directed toward the advertiser's site.

AdSense is similar, except that instead of displaying ads on a Google SERP, a webmaster can choose to integrate ads onto a site. Google's spiders crawl the site and analyze the content. Then, Google selects ads that contain keywords relevant to the webmaster's site. Webmasters can customize the type and location of the ads that Google provides. Every time someone clicks on an ad on the site, the site receives a portion of the ad revenue (and Google gets the rest). Google Analytics is a powerful tool that tracks traffic to websites, enabling them to better understand who their users are and what they're after on their sites.

With both Ads and AdSense, Google's strategy is to provide advertisers with ad placements that are directly targeted to the Google users who are most likely to buy their products or services and to give users information that is most relevant to what they're looking for (which may include goods and services to purchase) [source: Google].

That relationship between users and advertisers is at the heart of the business of Google ... though Google's Nayak is quick to point out that users, still, come first.

"We believe If users get what they want, get what they're looking for ... then they're going to keep coming back to look for more things," Nayak says, "and we send more traffic to the Web and we keep the Web ecosystem healthy.

Google Data Centers

Google servers
Google owns millions of servers on "server farms" throughout the world that provide services from search to storage to Google users everywhere. Google

Back in 1998, the equipment that ran Google was relatively modest. Co-founders Page and Brin used Stanford servers and other donated machines to run Google's search engine duties. The equipment at that time included:

  • Two 300-megahertz (MHz) Dual Pentium II servers with 512 megabytes (MB) of memory
  • A four-processor F50 IBM RS6000 computer with 512 MB of memory
  • A dual-processor Sun Ultra II computer with 256 MB of memory
  • Several hard drives (some of which were housed in a box covered in LEGO bricks) ranging from 4 to 9 gigabytes (GB) for a total of more than 350 GB of storage space [source: Pingdom]

Today, Google uses more than 2 million custom servers in more than a dozen data centers around the globe to make their products hum. Google's strategy is to design the servers without unnecessary hardware or software to limit potential problems and security vulnerabilities. The company distributes the data it stores over several servers in several centers, so that in the case of any potential breach or failure, the data — users' photos, videos, documents, etc. — is backed up in multiple locations. The sites also are physically protected — fences, guards and the like — 24 hours a day, seven days a week [source: Google].


Google uses servers for different tasks. Web servers receive and process user queries, sending the request on to the next appropriate server. Index servers store Google's indexes and search results. Document servers store search summaries, user information, Gmail and Google Docs files. Ad servers store the advertisements Google displays on search pages.

Google Company Culture

Google café
The Google campus includes several café stations where employees can eat free food and work. Google

Google has come a long way since Brin and Page networked a few computers at Stanford. The company now employs nearly 100,000 people around the world. Brin and Page are still very much involved with the operation. Brin is the president of parent company Alphabet; Page is the CEO.

In 2018, Google had almost $137 billion in revenue. Alphabet's stock is listed in NASDAQ as GOOG; its market cap, in mid 2019, stood at more than $785 billion [source: Google Finance].


Google's headquarters are in Mountain View, California. Google cheekily calls its Bay Area campus the Googleplex, a combination of the words "Google" and "complex" and a play on the term googolplex: the numeral 1 followed by a googol of zeroes. Life at the Googleplex is pretty sweet. Here's a small list of the amenities to be found there:

  • Several café stations where employees can gather to eat free food and have conversations
  • Snack rooms stocked with goodies ranging from candy to healthy foods like carrots and yogurt
  • Exercise rooms
  • Game rooms with video games, foosball, pool tables and ping-pong

In addition, Google employees receive a comprehensive benefits package that includes not only medical and dental coverage but a host of other services. These include tuition reimbursement, a child care center, adoption assistance services, an on-site doctor, financial planning classes and lots of opportunities to gather with coworkers at special corporate events.

Google's philosophy also places a premium on nonprofit work. The company recently committed to providing $1 billion in grants and a million employee hours to nonprofits that use technology in solving global problems.

As one of the most dominant forces on the internet, Google stands by its mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" [source: Google]. With a goal that lofty, it's a good bet that the people behind Google feel their work is just beginning.

To learn more about Google and other related topics, check out the links below.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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