Has it really been six years since Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) went public?

It seems as if the company has been traded publicly forever, but it really began in 2004. Google was hoping to price its freshly minted shares as high as $135, but it had to settle for $85 apiece.

The stock opened at $100 and has spent most of its six years frolicking in the triple digits.

Was Google's IPO a success? Financially, you bet. Original investors who held on through the upticks and the tempests are sitting on a 467% gain.

It's a great return through any six-year period, but it's relatively potent when compared to the market as a whole. Time has stood still for the S&P 500. It closed at 1095.17 the day before the world's leading search engine went public. It closed at 1094.16 yesterday.

The comparisons get even sweeter when we stack Google up against its rival Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO), which has seen its stock shed more than half of its value over the past six years. Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) is trading marginally lower, but that becomes a small gain once you factor in all of the dividends that the software giant has shelled out over the past six years.

However, Google's IPO was bigger than just the market-thumping gains. Big G decided to buck the system by offering some of its shares directly to individual investors.

Power to the people
Underwriters had to share Google's IPO stash with small-fry investors who bought their shares at $85 a pop without having to impress the major brokerage houses.

Here's where Google failed to set an empowerment trend.

OK, so it's not fair to entirely blame Google. Vonage (NYSE: VG) crashed that party two years later. It set aside a chunk of IPO shares for interested customers, but then had to sue deadbeat subscribers when they didn't pay up for the tanking shares.

Surely that's the only blemish on Google's otherwise impeccable market-thumping run. The "don't be evil" company is providing that good guys can finish first.

Oh, right. There's also that options repricing fiasco.

Double standard
Google may have let the little guys in, but it didn't give them a way out.

Last January -- with the market in free fall -- Big G announced that it would allow employees to exchange their lofty stock options for new ones with slightly longer vesting schedules at substantially lower strike prices. In other words, it gave employees a do-over.

Shareholders didn't have the same kind of luxury. They couldn't revisit their cost basis and pocket the difference.

The logic of reworking employee stock options is that hires have a hard time getting motivated when strike prices appear unattainable. Options, backers argue, lose their zing as incentives.


"If you argue that individual employees aren't to blame for a stock's demise, why nurture the illusion that they are the ones responsible for its ascent," I wrote at the time.

When a company like Chinese hotelier Home Inns (Nasdaq: HMIN) reprices its options after the market deals the company an 85% haircut, we grimace -- but we move on. Home Inns never set itself up as the gold standard. Google was supposed to be better than that.

Two months later, the market kicked off its monster rally that sent most stocks nicely higher. Did Google decide to do the right thing and reverse its repricing? Do you really have to ask?

No corporate body is perfect
Google has made plenty of enemies over the past five years. It has upset some media conglomerates, publishers, and other masters of intellectual properties.

However, I'm not going to chalk up demerits for simply rubbing industries the wrong way. In fact, I'm reaching into my bag of gold stars there, because that's often the hallmark of a great disruptor.

In that sense, Google has fared admirably:

  • Its launch of AdSense has armed content publishers with unmatched monetization power through the syndication of Google's market-leading advertising network.
  • Rolling out free Web-based productivity software may be a thorn in Microsoft's side -- and the rising popularity of Google's open-source Android smartphone platform is giving Microsoft, Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM), and even Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) reasons to fret -- but it's also giving consumers cheaper access to vital business tools.

Ultimately, stock charts don't lie. Google may be far removed from its all-time highs set three years ago, but as an entire body of work, the six years have been excellent for early believers.

I can always hope that the next six years find Google sticking closer to its "don't be evil" roots, but I'll take what the company's done so far.

Who wouldn't, really?

What kind of job do you think Google has done over its first six years as a public company? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

Google and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz still uses Google a lot in his daily life. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.