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The Verge's Nilay Patel talks Google's legacy and its future on its 25th anniversary

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today is a big anniversary for one of the most influential companies of our time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LARRY PAGE: We should say that Google is - we want to provide information to people. That's what we do. And so we try to err on that side whenever we can. And I think this will be a very interesting issue for the world going forward.

SHAPIRO: That was Google co-founder Larry Page speaking with WHYY's Fresh Air in 2003. At that point, the company was already a behemoth at just 5 years old. Now, as the company turns 25, let's look at where Google has been and where it's going with Nilay Patel. He's editor-in-chief of The Verge and has been reflecting on Google's legacy and its future. Thanks for being here.

NILAY PATEL: Thanks for having me.

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SHAPIRO: Before Google had a parent company, Alphabet, before it owned YouTube, before Google it was a household phrase, what was this company's reason for existing?

PATEL: You know, Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with a better algorithm for delivering search results on the internet called PageRank, named after Larry Page. And, really, they turned that into a business in a very classic Silicon Valley way. They didn't know what business they were in. They just knew that their product was better than competing products. And at the very beginning of Google, they were both fairly opposed to advertising. And they knew that advertising would be a way to make money, but they thought it would corrupt the company inevitably. And here we are 25 years later, and Google is a dominant purveyor of advertising online. And it is - I think it's important for us to all take a minute and look at it and say, OK, our information architecture is dominated by people searching for things, and those search results are very much influenced by the needs of Google.

SHAPIRO: Not only that, you write that Google set out to organize the world's information. But ultimately, what ended up happening was that information organized itself for Google. Can you give us an example of what you mean by that?

PATEL: Yeah. And I think this is largely true of all algorithmic media distribution platforms, and we just don't think about Google that way. If I told you that Instagram influencers tried to make things to please the Instagram recommendation algorithm, no one would bat an eye. Everyone knows this is true. YouTubers try to make videos that please the YouTube algorithm. There's a reason that every YouTube thumbnail looks crazy and has a shocking headline about what you won't believe. It's because that works in that algorithm. The way it's organized, the amount of words on a recipe website - all of that is there because people believe that the Google search algorithm will favor that stuff. And so you just look at this world that we're in online, and you say, boy, there's a true invisible hand here that dominates how people organize information.

If you ask Google, they will deny this up and down. They will say that Google just reflects what people are searching for. And the truth is obviously somewhere in the middle, right? People are trying to rank higher in search. They make things that the robot wants, and the robot is just surfacing the results that people click on the most. And there's some cycle in there. But what is truly bizarre to me is no one will point directly at Google being the center of that cycle.

SHAPIRO: So you argue that Google has not just reflected the internet back to us, but really shaped the internet as it exists today, and it may look very different tomorrow. When we look at the future of the company, you argue that AI-related challenges pose an existential threat to Google. Existential threat is a strong phrase. Why?

PATEL: So that quote you played at the very beginning is the conflict that has been within Google from the very beginning. They are there to provide useful information. That's what Google has always thought of itself as. Initially, the way they provided it was by looking at the entire internet and sending you to pages on the internet that contained that information. Over time, Google has bought a lot of companies that now own and control that information, and they favor their own companies over competitors who might have better information or more useful services.

They also just answer the questions directly now. There was a cottage industry of websites telling people what time the Super Bowl was. That was pretty ridiculous. But they were all competing for Google search traffic for that query on the day of the Super Bowl. Now, Google just tells you the answer to that question. That's probably fine. But you add in something like AI or Google's search generative experience, which needs to ingest a massive amount of data to then just provide the answers contained on the pages that it ingested, and no one gets any traffic from that. Nobody gets any value from that. And you can see why a bunch of companies that have organized themselves around Google traffic are freaking out - because they have just provided all of their work to Google for free, and they're not really going to get anything else out of it.

SHAPIRO: If an AI-defined future is worse for Google, is it better for users who are just trying to find the best information without getting gamed and manipulated for clicks?

PATEL: I think that is one of the questions of the AI age. If no one wants to share their new information with Google, what will it train the AI on? If some set of big publishers say, look, our Google traffic is going down - we're going to stop letting Google crawl our web pages and stop feeding new information into the Google search machine - where's the AI going to get new, reliable information from? It can't scrape Instagram. They can't scrape TikTok. Those companies are closed off to Google. I had asked Google's CEO, Sundar Pichai, about this, and his answer was that they have YouTube - that YouTube exists - and people will still make YouTube videos. And I think that answer is fundamentally extremely revealing. Google knows that a new creator online is not going to start a web page the way that I started a web page when I was a young person who wanted to make things on the internet. They're going to start a TikTok channel or a YouTube channel. So if the web slowly dies because Google and AI are sucking the value out of it without creating any incentives to create new things, I don't know where that leaves any of us, really.

SHAPIRO: OK. So big picture on this anniversary, 25 years in, if you could describe Google's legacy in a sentence, what would that be?

PATEL: Secretly ruthless.

SHAPIRO: Oh, that's rough. Wow. Secretly ruthless - that's even less than a sentence. Give me a little bit more. Why do you say secretly ruthless?

PATEL: Google has convinced everyone that it is this incredibly sincere and earnest company - that it's just a bunch of goofballs making cool things. That is true. But I think if we just paid a little more attention to where Google's money comes from - and it is almost entirely advertising - I think we would be able to see the company and its influence a little bit more clearly. But the truth is, it is an utterly ruthless advertising company that is very, very, very successful at delivering results to its clients.

SHAPIRO: But Nilay, you didn't mention how cute the Google doodles are.

PATEL: Yeah, the - I understand. They're very cute.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

PATEL: Like, I know a lot of Google people and a lot of Google executives. They're on my show, Decoder, all the time. I like talking to them. They wrestle, very sincerely, with very challenging tradeoffs. But I do think, on the occasion of its anniversary, it is remarkable that we are all more cynical or more rigorous in our analysis of Facebook. To some extent, we're more cynical in our analysis of Apple. To a huge extent, we are cynical in our analysis of TikTok. But no one applies that level of rigor to Google, which is actually the product that shapes the most information on the web.

SHAPIRO: Nilay Patel is host of the "Decoder" podcast and editor-in-chief at The Verge, where all this year he'll be reflecting on the past and future of Google to mark the company's 25th anniversary. Thanks for marking it with us.

PATEL: Thank you for having me.

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Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.