Hey, it's Google's birthday! Remember when they were the good guys?

Reg greybeards (whispered, stage left): We remember

celebrating in front of flaming birthday cake

Google is celebrating its 21st birthday today – old enough to buy its own celebratory pint in many states in the US.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at Stanford University and officially launched the site in 1998. This was preceded by a variety of soft launches but the company chooses September 27 as its official birthday.

Before it stretched its tentacles into advertising, maps, mobile operating systems, video hosting via YouTube, email, office software and other web services, Google was a great search engine.

This reporter is old enough to remember being shown the site by a workmate in 1997 or early 1998. The search engine was pretty much a miracle which required none of the skills and tricks required by boolean searches on AltaVista or endless digging through categories on Yahoo!

In those days it relied on PageRank – which ordered results based on how a page was regarded by other web pages in terms of how many other pages linked back to it, which is still a minor ingredient in its secret sauce.

Google incorporated as a company in 1998 with about $1m in investment from friends, family and individual investors. As is compulsory for all mythical Silicon Valley startups, it began life in a borrowed garage.

When it floated in August 2004 it was valued at $20bn; Google – sorry, Alphabet – is now closing in on a valuation of a trillion dollars, $860bn.

Google became a watchword for the popular perception of Silicon Valley firms. With its supposedly kooky work culture, the Grateful Dead's tour chef running the canteen and employees being permitted to bring their dog to the office, the company crafted an innocent and world-improving image which belied some sharp or even brutal business practices.

Giving staff one day a week to work on personal projects might seem like libertarian madness, but it led to several now hugely profitable projects like Google StreetView.

The organisation has, however, suffered some growing pains despite, or because of, its early slogan of "Don't be Evil" – who needs a regular reminder not to be evil?

So where is Google now, on the brink of maturity? Recent years have seen trouble with the law around the world.

The company is still appealing several EU fines and is facing scrutiny on at least three fronts in the US.

It dominates several markets like search, digital advertising, mobile operating systems, web services and online mapping, which barely existed in 1998.

Love it or hate it, there is no denying that Google has shaped our online world like no other company. ®

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