A once-popular company had the chance to buy Google for a low, low price
It’s one of the most famous deals that never happened. In 1999, Google’s founders were willing to sell to Excite.com, the number two search engine at the time behind Yahoo!, for under $1 million, but Excite turned them down.
Excite was one of the internet’s first true search engines, whereas Yahoo! and many of the other sites acted as portals or directories. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google (which at the time was known as BackRub), approached Excite CEO George Bell with a deal to buy their new company for $1 million. Bell turned down the famous offer.
Excite had previously bought two other search engines, Webcrawler and Magellan, so this wasn’t something new for Excite. But Bell had a second chance to buy Google when Page and Brin were talked down to the price of $750,000 by Vinod Khosla, a backer for Excite. Bell turned them down again. What’s Google’s market value now? Around $1.5 trillion.
There’s no telling what Google would be like today if the sale had taken place, and Bell didn’t have a crystal ball or could have known what they would become. Excite, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well. In 2004, Excite was sold to Ask Jeeves, the search engine with the butler that helped you find things. This later became Ask.com. It’s now owned by Barry Dillers IAC, a media and internet company. Excite is still a web portal with access to its own web-based email service.
But why did Bell turn down the offer? This is where accounts of the deal become conflicted. According to Bell, from multiple interviews he gave about the breakdown of the deal, the crux of the issue was that when the two search engines (Excite and BackRub) were tested together, he saw no discernible difference between the two. A more significant reason, according to Bell, however, came down to a demand Larry Page made in the deal that all of Excite’s technology would have to be replaced with Google’s.
But there was another proposed side to the story. In Steven Levy’s book, In The Plex, he told of a different version. He wrote that Larry Page viewed the offer as a one-off so he could return to his doctoral studies at Stanford and that the test between Excite’s search engine and BackRub produced very different results that were not what Excite wanted at the time.
Levy explained that BackRub gave the user the information they needed and was too good and that it would have users leave the Excite website too quickly. Excite, he explained, made revenue from ads and wanted users to stay on the site as long as possible, so for them, the search engine wouldn’t work. Bell, of course, disputes this account.
There is no way for any of the parties to have known the behemoth Google would become or what the landscape would look like now if Excite had taken the deal. But the deal still goes down on one of the most interesting thought experiments of what could have been.