image WITH ALL THE TALK about self-driving cars and connected-home innovations, it would be easy to forget that Google began as just a search engine—and a simple search engine at that. Since the company incorporated in 1998, simplicity has been the hallmark of the Google homepage, which offers little more than a box for search terms and an abundance of empty white space. Yet back in 2000, even with such a straightforward product, Google noticed a problem among its user base. Although people were visiting the site, they weren’t searching for anything.

Puzzled by this phenomenon, the company sent a team to a nearby college to do some ...

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