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Sergey Brin and Larry Page

Paul Sullivan

If you're going to follow billionaires around, hoping for a juicy stock tip, you could do worse than dog the footsteps of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, No. 32 and 33 respectively on the 2008 list of Forbes list of the world's billionaires.

Sergey and Brin are self-made billionaires, who started Google, Inc., the world's largest Internet search engine, in 1998 in the proverbial garage. Back then they didn't have enough money for lunch, never mind launch. Now Sergey is slightly richer than Larry: he checks in at $18.7-billion (U.S.), while Larry is worth $18.6-billion.

This is arguably the most precipitous rise in the history of rich people. Brin and Page may not be the world's richest men, but if you add up their fortunes, the Google co-founders collectively become No. 7 in the world, behind the fabulously wealthy Ambani brothers of India, and one up on the old Swedish guy who owns Ikea.

They may not be the world's youngest. That honour goes to wunderkind Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who bops into the list at No. 785 with a $1.5-billion ante. He's all of 23. At 23, I was still in bed.

But it's difficult to argue with the collective brilliance of Brin and Page. They have virtually cornered the search engine market: Google holds about 58 per cent of the market, while the next two competitors, Yahoo and Microsoft hold 22 and 9 per cent respectively. Even if Yahoo and Microsoft were to join up as Microsoft has proposed, they would still trail Google by 27 per cent.

Google is just the best search engine, and it's the best because Brin and Page have an oft-stated, yet persistently powerful vision: "To organize the world's information and to make it universally acceptable and useful." And that's what they're doing.

Now that Google is the world's dominant entry point to the Internet, Google plans to become the world's dominant advertising broker, the world's dominant social network, the world's dominant mobile supplier, and the world's dominant producer of alternative energy. Talk about Geeks Gone Wild.

It's not all roses at the Googleplex in Mountain View, Ca. The stock price has not fared well since November when it was in the stratosphere at $750. Today it's trading at a more reasonable $430, earning $4.827 billion in Q4.

CEO Eric Schmidt says that the company is well-positioned to weather the current stormy market. "We're not dependent on any particular one market," he told reporters recently. "There's not a lot of advertising for any one market over the other." Google text ads are almost as ubiquitous on the Internet as Google searches, and they have added to that dominance with the recent purchase of Doubleclick, the online ad network, for $3.1 billion.

" With DoubleClick," says Schmidt, "Google now has the leading display ad platform, which will enable us to rapidly bring to market advances in technology and infrastructure that will dramatically improve the effectiveness, measurability and performance of digital media for publishers, advertisers and agencies, while improving the relevance of advertising for users."

Whew. I think that means Google is closing in on banner and skyscraper ads as well as cornering the market on text ads. As online and mobile advertising threatens to catch and pass print and broadcast advertising over the next few years, Google is well-positioned indeed: to dominate advertising the way it dominates search. According to Joe Marchese, columnist for MediaPost: "Google's real goal is to be THE advertising OS (operating system) through which all advertising decisions are planned, executed and measured." Well, it worked for search.

Another interest Google initiative is Android, an open software program for mobile phones. Google's Andy Rubin, Android's developer, points out that there are 3 billion mobile phones a point that's not lost of Google. "This is going to be, for some people, the first way to get access to the Internet," he told ZDNet recently. "They might not even have a PC. So it is the future."

Not content to dominate the Internet, Page and Brin are serious about extending Google's reach into the energy domain. This starts out as a project of Google.org, the company's philanthropic arm, which recently launched RE

Right now, startups can sell green energy at 10 cents per kilowatt hour, but according to Page, that doesn't bring about real change. "Our primary goal is not to fix the world," he modestly told an audience at Davos08 in January, but at least Google has the power to drive the cost of alternative energy down. And Brin is not talking about mere social responsibility. Google aims to benefit its core businesses: "There's a big bet at some point that you need to make that's going to take capital," he told the same audience. And Google is in a good position to take that risk, he says.

So, despite a $320 loss in share value over five months, Google still feels it's in a "good position", or "well-positioned". This "position" is endorsed by a recent admirer, Warren Buffet, now, according to Forbes, the World's Richest Man.

In his most recent Berkshire Hathaway letter, Buffet included Google in a list of "what kind of businesses turn us on." Since that remarkable placement, analysts have been turning themselves upside down trying to figure if WB will actually buy Google shares. Certainly, it's trading at a pretty good price historically, and with Doubleclick, MySpace, Android and alternative energy lined up, you could argue that Google is fulfilling one of Buffet's key tenets: favourable long-term economics. If Google controls the Internet, which it does, for all intents and purposes, it's hard to believe that doesn't have favorable long term implications, although Wayne Mulligan of Seeking Alpha, the stock newsletter, argues that the tech sector is unstable because it is predicated on the process of creative destruction: "I mean, how many times have we seen this happen in the last 10 years?" he asks.

Still, Brin and Page also take care of Buffet's three other investment principles:

If you've got to follow anyone in these squirrelly times, you could, as I said in the opening sentence of this piece, do worse than follow Brin and Page around. But let's give them the last word:

Page: "When we started we had about 30 million Web pages which was quite large for the time. Now we have well over a billion web pages. So that gives you some idea of how we've grown in content. So we try to make more and more stuff available to people, we try to, when you come to Google, fulfill that need that you have as quickly as possible."

Brin: "You want access to as much as possible so you can discern what is most relevant and correct. The solution isn't to limit the information you received. Ultimately you want to have the entire world's knowledge connected directly to your mind."

Paul Sullivan is a longtime Vancouver journalist and president of Sullivan Media. He also writes for The Globe and Mail.

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