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Google Faces Challenge of Public Company Status

By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2004; Page E01

Your name is synonymous with searching the Internet, and you've just raised roughly $1.7 billion from investors by going public. What are you going to do now?

For Google Inc., despite its cachet and profit-making business, it's not an easy question. With industry titans such as Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. training their sights on the search business, Google must figure out how to keep and possibly expand its reach while operating with the unfamiliar level of scrutiny that goes with being a public company.


Google began trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market under the symbol "GOOG" on Thursday. (Jennifer S. Altman -- Bloomberg News)

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A recommendation from some industry analysts: Own up to the kind of a company Google really is.

Google's runaway success with computer users looking for anything on the Internet originally was due to search technology its founders developed as graduate students at Stanford University in the mid-1990s.

But what turned Google into a firm with sales of nearly $1.4 billion in the first half of this year was its strategy of putting relevant advertising links on search-result pages. Almost single-handedly, Google made advertising on the Internet work.

On Thursday, the stock began trading on the Nasdaq market after an investor auction helped set the initial price at $85 per share. It closed out the trading week at $108.31, hitting the lower end of the price range the company originally set for shares before bowing to lower-than-expected investor demand.

With Yahoo and others catching up and competing hard, growth in advertising revenue is slowing. And Microsoft, which has said it mistakenly ignored the money-making potential of search technology, is planning to integrate search into its new operating system tentatively scheduled for release in 2006.

"Search is not a business," said Allen Weiner, a research director for Gartner Inc., a market research firm. "It's a gigantic horizontal technology which they will have to continue to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at to make it strong."

Weiner argues that in the long run, companies such as Microsoft and Yahoo might have an advantage because they own content that can be searched, in addition to scanning Web pages. What if, for example, a new Microsoft engine could effectively search across the video archives of MSNBC or the Encarta encyclopedia that people put on their computers?

Weiner said Google should think of itself as a media company, saying Yahoo began a significant turnaround when it hired Terry Semel, a former Hollywood executive.

Nate Elliott, an associate analyst at Jupiter Research, agrees that Google is, in effect, a media company.

"They'll say to their dying day they are a technology company," Elliott said. "But 98 percent of their revenue comes from advertising."

Elliott said that as long as Google maintains a critical mass of consumers using it for search, search-engine marketers will have no choice but to use it for advertising. Competition from Yahoo and Microsoft is more likely to hurt smaller search-engine players rather than Google, he said.

"This company can crank out cash when it wants to," said Elliott, who said he finds it hard to imagine that competitors will shake Google's popularity with users. "I'd hang onto it [the $1.7 billion] for a rainy day."

To be sure, Google has not been standing still. It has launched Gmail, its free e-mail service, and Froogle, which searches deals from consumer-product catalogues. Google Labs, its research arm, has come up with a way to use Froogle from cell phones so shoppers can compare prices on an item they are looking at in a store.

Google's founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, also have borrowed a page from Microsoft's book and are hiring as many top-flight engineers and PhDs as they can find. Long term, Page and Brin told Playboy magazine in a recent interview, people might be able to call a number from their cell phones, say a search term, and get the results back on their phones.

"Where will it lead?" asked Brin in the interview. "Who knows? But it's credible to imagine a leap . . . from today's search engines to having the entirety of the world's information as just one of our thoughts."

That kind of sci-fi talk has been an important part of maintaining a carefully cultivated Google mystique. Its image was aided by being a private company with no obligation to disclose its inner workings or future plans.

The company also won fans for its "Don't be evil" credo, which was laid out in its regulatory filings prior to its going public.

But Weiner said Google needs to focus on controlling the image of its brand, beyond messages about corporate culture.

"From the day you go from private to public, the perception of that brand changes, and you have to maintain control."

Now, Weiner said, Google will have quarterly earnings reports in which it will have to show at least some of its hand and what directions it plans to head.

"They need to have a very clear product road map." he said. "Something beyond search."


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