Google wrote its mission statement in 1999, a year after launch, setting the course for the company’s next decade:
“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
For years, Google’s mission included the preservation of the past.
In 2001, Google made their first acquisition, the Deja archives. The largest collection of Usenet archives, Google relaunched it as Google Groups, supplemented with archived messages going back to 1981.
In 2004, Google Books signaled the company’s intention to scan every known book, partnering with libraries and developing its own book scanner capable of digitizing 1,000 pages per hour.
In 2006, Google News Archive launched, with historical news articles dating back 200 years. In 2008, they expanded it to include their own digitization efforts, scanning newspapers that were never online.
In the last five years, starting around 2010, the shifting priorities of Google’s management left these archival projects in limbo, or abandoned entirely.
After a series of redesigns, Google Groups is effectively dead for research purposes. The archives, while still online, have no means of searching by date.
Google News Archives are dead, killed off in 2011, now directing searchers to just use Google.
Google Books is still online, but curtailed their scanning efforts in recent years, likely discouraged by a decade of legal wrangling still in appeal. The official blog stopped updating in 2012 and the Twitter account’s been dormant since February 2013.
Even Google Search, their flagship product, stopped focusing on the history of the web. In 2011, Google removed the Timeline view letting users filter search results by date, while a series of major changes to their search ranking algorithm increasingly favored freshness over older pages from established sources. (To the detriment of some.)
Two months ago, Larry Page said the company’s outgrown its 14-year-old mission statement. Its ambitions have grown, and its priorities have shifted.
Google in 2015 is focused on the present and future. Its social and mobile efforts, experiments with robotics and artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles and fiberoptics.
As it turns out, organizing the world’s information isn’t always profitable. Projects that preserve the past for the public good aren’t really a big profit center. Old Google knew that, but didn’t seem to care.
The desire to preserve the past died along with 20% time, Google Labs, and the spirit of haphazard experimentation.
Google may have dropped the ball on the past, but fortunately, someone was there to pick it up.