Way back in the internet dark ages – 1999 to be precise, the then leading search engine excite.com had the opportunity to purchase Google for a measly $750,000. Second only to Yahoo (remember those guys) in the world of search at the time, Excite ultimately reneged on the deal due to what they considered to be a very hard bargain being driven by a young Larry Page.
It seems strange in retrospect that any price could be too great to pay for what was to become the site that would eventually dethrone Yahoo, but George Bell, the then CEO of excite said in his interview with internet history podcast website that when Excite’s backers got interested in Google, they came to him first out of courtesy.
“I got a phone call from Vinod Khosla one day at Kleiner, saying he had an opportunity to invest in a new search engine. Maybe it’s 1998? I think it’s around that time. And Vinod said they would not do it if we objected because they made a lot of money on Excite. And they were still on our board and they were big supporters of Excite. I said, “Well, why don’t you make the introduction. I’ll talk to the guys and we’ll see.”
The search engine equivalent of a rap battle ensued where Excite and Google got together to see which of the two technologies was superior.
Over several weeks, hundreds of common internet search queries were run in Excite and Google and according to Mr. Bell, there wasn’t much difference in the results that the respective search algorithms generated.
“There wasn’t a clear delineation. I think if you talked to Graham Spencer (Excite’s technical founder) he would tell you that they’d done some very clever things in technology, that he thought would allow them to scale with real speed. But that if you looked at results and looked at the way consumers would look at it, it really wasn’t that differentiated to us. And actually, all of us at Excite have a pretty common recollection of that.”
That however, isn’t the sole reason George Bell and his Excite team walked away from the opportunity to own what would go on to become one of the most successful companies in history. Despite agreeing in principle, a deal worth $750,000 in cash and 1% of Excite shares, the real haymaker in the negotiation was apparently Larry Page’s audacious stipulation that Excite replace its search technology with Google’s – thus amounting to an effective technological takeover of the company.
Mr. Bell said of the demand, “we had hundreds of engineers at that point, and culturally, we really were driven by technology. And I didn’t think we could survive… or the differentiation in search results were clearly not dramatic enough to justify the cultural risk that Larry would insist on. So, ultimately, we passed.”
There is however, another side to the story.
Author Steven Levy states in his book, ‘In the Plex,’ that Larry Page was intending to return to his doctorate studies at Stanford University. He had calculated that what was then known as the, ‘Back Rub,’ algorithm would generate about $130,000 for Excite per day. He figured that by implementing his technology and working at the search giant for a few months, this would amount to a fee of about $1.6 million for his time before he went on to bigger and better things further down the road.
Levy states in his book that, “The first query they tested was “Internet.” According to Hassan, Excite’s first results were Chinese web pages where the English word “Internet” stood out among a jumble of Chinese characters. Then the team typed “Internet” into BackRub. The first two results delivered pages that told you how to use browsers. It was exactly the kind of helpful result that would most likely satisfy someone who made the query. Bell was visibly upset. The Stanford product was too good. If Excite were to host a search engine that instantly gave people information they sought, he explained, the users would leave the site instantly. Since his ad revenue came from people staying on the site—“stickiness” was the most desired metric in websites at the time—using BackRub’s technology would be counterproductive.”
George Bell of Excite naturally, completely refutes this version of events and referred to the claim as, ‘baloney,’ stating that Excite would always try to buy or partner with the best products and companies in the space if needs be and then figure out the appropriate business model later on.
Whichever version of events is true, the future could have been much more exciting for Excite.
Google currently enjoys revenues of $75 Billion whereas George Bell’s Excite@home filed for bankruptcy in 2001.
All we can say is that if Excite or anybody else would like to purchase The W1nners’ Club, you are more than welcome to keep your existing technology because our offices get filled with a blind panic every time the wi-fi goes down for more than 5 minutes.