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Google: simplicity that works

Google is probably the most successful technology company of our age. Its homepage is the gateway to the internet for many, its Maps feature helps us to get around, and its company name has become a verb in its own right (don't believe me? Google it). There are plenty of other sites offering a similar product, so what is it that sets Google apart from the rest? The key is simplicity.

The world's homepage

When Google launched in 1998, the internet was filling up with flashy, complicated websites, intended to show off the creator's HTML skills. Google's homepage could not have been more different; it was simply a logo and a search box. The original homepage didn't even have a search button, as the return key did the job just fine. Speaking in 2012, Marissa Mayer, then Google vice-president, revealed why the original homepage looked the way it did, and the explanation was simple: Google co-founder Sergey Brin didn't know much HTML. Mayer said, "He put together the simplest web page he could to test out the search engine back when he was a Ph.D. student." It was purely a case of using the resources you have, and in Sergey Brin's case, stumbling on something iconic.

Mayer admitted that at first, test users were unsure what to do with the page because it was so simple: "They'd say, 'I'm waiting for the rest of it.' The blank homepage was so out of context in 1999 that they were just waiting for the rest of it." To solve this problem, Google added a small copyright notice at the bottom of the page, serving no purpose other than to signal to users that the page was fully loaded and ready to use. Now, the Google homepage is such an integral part of our web browsing experience that it's hard to imagine it differently.

Setting standards

As Google grew and became much more than a search engine, the simplicity of the homepage – and therefore the brand – had to be protected. The founders rightly recognized that Google's simplicity was part of its widespread appeal, even as they began adding new features and services like Google Maps. Marissa Mayer recently revealed that, when an engineer approached the executive team with a new idea, it had to go through an "audition" before making it onto the homepage, involving a rigorous scoring system. A "point" is allocated for each change in type size, style or color, and then the points are added up, the aim being to have as few points as possible. In this way, Google manages to keep its design consistent, even as the range of products and services offered by the site expands.

Simplicity with added humanity

Having such a rigorous approach to design could easily mean that Google's homepage became a boring, utilitarian tool which people take for granted. Instead, millions of people visit the page every day just to see its ever-changing logo, known as the "Google doodle." The Google doodle is a stroke of genius; the logo is always clear and recognizable, but it gives the company a chance to show some humanity and a sense of fun. This is the key to what makes Google an attractive brand; users know that they can expect a sleek, functional service that works – whether it’s email, maps or a straightforward search – but also a bit of humor and whimsy which can go a long way.

Google keeps it simple, but isn't afraid to have fun – and now countless brands are trying to replicate its approach and success.

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