The World According To Google

In a bygone era--say, five years ago--it would have been an occasion to burn shoe leather. A friend clued me in to an eBay item connected with a criminal case I was following. I didn't know who the seller was, and the district attorney on the case didn't know, either. "We're looking into it," he assured me. I checked into it as well. Fifteen minutes later, I had not only the seller's name, I'd discovered that he was a real-estate agent in a small California town. I'd seen a picture of him. I knew which community groups he belonged to, the title of a book he'd written. And what college he had attended. And I found out that the seller had a keen interest in hooking up with younger men--and I'd even read graphic descriptions of what he liked to do with them.

How did I know this? By performing an act done by tens of millions of people every day: typing a query (my quarry's eBay handle, which was the same as his e-mail address) into a blank line on a sparsely decorated Web page. In about the time it takes to sneeze, and for a cost of, oh, zero, his particulars and proclivities were in my hands. And no shoe leather was expended.

Reader, I Googled him.

Internet-search engines have been around for the better part of a decade, but with the emergence of Google, something profound has happened. Because of its seemingly uncanny ability to provide curious minds with the exact information they seek, a dot-com survivor has supercharged the entire category of search, transforming the masses into data-miners and becoming a cultural phenomenon in the process. By a winning combination of smart algorithms, hyperactive Web crawlers and 10,000 silicon-churning computer servers, Google has become a high-tech version of the Oracle of Delphi, positioning everyone a mouseclick away from the answers to the most arcane questions--and delivering simple answers so efficiently that the process becomes addictive. Google cofounder Sergey Brin puts it succinctly: "I'd like to get to a state where people think that if you've Googled something, you've researched it, and otherwise you haven't and that's it." We're almost there now. With virtually no marketing, Google is now the fourth most popular Web site in the world--and the Nos. 1 and 3 sites (AOL, Yahoo) both license Google technology for their Web searches. About half of all Web searches in the world are performed with --Google, which has been translated into 86 languages. The big reason for the success? It works. Not only does Google dramatically speed the process of finding things in the vast storehouse of the Web, but its power encourages people to make searches they previously wouldn't have bothered with. Getting the skinny from Google is so common that the company name has become a verb. The usage has even been anointed by an instantly renowned New Yorker cartoon, where a barfly admits to a friend that "I can't explain it--it's just a funny feeling I'm being Googled."

And when you're Googled, it matters what the results are, since it's the modern version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Yellow Pages and the Social Register, all rolled up in one.

Google's uses are limited only by the imaginations of those who punch in 150 million searches a day. What they search for is fascinating: at the reception area at Google, a scrolling, real-time selection of queries (filtered to remove sex-related items) is projected on a bare wall, a temperature probe of what the world wants to know. The company also provides a more methodical analysis with its Google Zeitgeist, posted every week on the site: a top 10 list of rising and falling queries. (Best way to hit the charts? Drop dead. Last month millions posthumously Googled James Coburn and obscure stuntman Merlin Santana.)

Even more interesting is how people search. By empowering the masses to make use of the multi-terabit glory of the Web, Google has made supersleuths of us all. Privacy advocates are going crazy at the Pentagon's plan to track citizens' purchases, Web-site visits and phone calls. But as my search for the eBay seller indicates, with Google everybody is Big Brother.

In the singles world, for instance, "Google dating"--running prospective beaus through the search engine--is now standard practice. If the facts about a suitor stack up, then you can not only go on the date with --confidence, but you know what to talk about. "If I find out he's a runner, for instance, that's something I know we have in common, and I'll say that I'm a runner, too," says Krissy Goetz, a 24-year-old interactive designer in New York City. The first thing a Google virgin attempts is the often humbling experience of typing one's own name into the query line. The next search is inevitable--a Google dragnet to determine the fate of old flames. A Nobel Prize awaits the theorist who determines a formula that calculates the number of minutes one can use Google before excavating the wreckage of sunken relationships. "It's comforting to know what they've been up to," says Gavin MacDonald, 29, who's checked up on four of his former sweethearts.

For researchers, of course, Google is a dream tool. "I can't imagine writing a non-fiction book without it," says author Steven Johnson. Some even wonder if Google might be too much of a good thing. "I use it myself, every day," says Joe Janes, assistant professor in the information school of the University of Washington. "But I worry about how over reliance on it might affect the skill-set of librarians."

New uses emerge almost as quickly as the typical 0.3 seconds it takes to get Google results. People find long-lost relatives, recall old song lyrics and locate parts for old MGs. College instructors sniffing for plagiarism type in suspiciously accomplished phrases from the papers of otherwise inarticulate students. Computer programmers type in error-code numbers to find out which Windows function crashed their program. Google can even save your life. When Terry Chilton, of Plattsburgh, N.Y., felt a pressure in his chest one morning, he Googled heart attacks, and quickly was directed to a detailed list of symptoms on the American Heart Association site. "I better get my butt to the hospital," he told himself, and within hours he was in life-saving surgery.

Eleven years ago computer scientist David Gelernter wrote of the emergence of "mirror worlds," computer-based reflections of physical reality that can increase our understanding and mastery of the real world. Google is the ultimate mirror world, reflecting the aggregate brilliance of the World Wide Web, on which is stored everything: cookie-bake results, Weblogs, weather reports and the Constitution. And because Google is now the default means of accessing such information, the contents of Google's world matter very much in the real world.

When Judge Richard Posner wrote a book recently to identify the world's leading intellectuals, he used Google hits as a key criterion. When the Chinese government decided that the Web offered its citizenry an overly intimate view of the world outside its borders, what better way to pull down the shades than to block Google? (Within a week the Chinese changed direction; Google was too useful to withhold.) Companies that do business online have become justifiably obsessed with Google's power. "If you drop down on Google, your business can come to a screeching halt," says Greg Boser of WebGuerilla, an Internet consultancy. And if two clashing egos want to see whose Google is bigger, they need only venture to a Web site like GoogleFight to compare results.

Google was the brainchild of two Stanford graduate students who refused to accept the conventional wisdom that Internet searching was either a solved problem or not very interesting. Larry Page was an all-American type (geek variety) whose dad taught computer science in Lansing, Mich. Sergey Brin, with the dark brooding looks of a chess prodigy, emigrated from Russia at the age of 6: his father was a math professor. Brin and Page, who met as 22-year-old doctoral candidates in computer science in 1995, began with an academic research project that morphed into an experiment on Web searching.

Their big idea was something they called PageRank (named after Larry), which took into account not just the title or text on a Web site but the other sites linked to it. "Our intention of doing the ranking properly was that you should get the site you meant to get," says Page. Basically, the system exploited the dizzyingly complex linking network of the Web itself--and the collective intelligence of the millions who surfed the Web--so that when you searched, you could follow in the pathways of others who were interested in that same information.

When you searched for "New York Yankees" on some other engine, the top results might be crowded with sporting goods stores or books on Sparky Lyle. With Backrub (the system's original name), your first hit would be the Official Yankees Home Page. Brin and Page were so confident they could deliver the eureka! result that in addition to the button that elicits search results, they created a cut-to-the-chase button labeled I'm feeling lucky. Take the dare, and if all goes well, you'll go straight to your most relevant destination.

Their system became a cult favorite among Stanfordites, and more computer power was required. Page and Brin would sit on loading docks and wait for new servers to be delivered to the computer-science department. "Pretty soon, we had 10,000 searches a day," says Page. "And we figured, maybe this is really real."

So in 1998 they sought to fund a company. After a 15-minute pitch, Sun Microsystems cofounder Andy Bechtolscheim wrote a $100,000 check on the spot. It was made out to Google, the new name that the founders had chosen ("Googol" is the mathematical term for the number one followed by a hundred zeros). At that point, Brin and Page figured they'd better incorporate, so they could open a bank account in which to deposit the check. Eventually venture-capital firms signed on, and the start-up took space in a Mountain View office park, which was dubbed the Googleplex.

In some ways, the hang-loose atmosphere echoed other self-indulgent bubble operations: massages for employees, dogs running free, a grand piano in the lobby, Jerry Garcia's former chef cooking lunches and dinners in the on-site Google Cafe. But in other respects, the pair gloried in being cheap. They built their own servers, using disk drives that had been discarded as defective but could be revived by a software transplant. They were extremely careful about hiring. And since Brin believed that you didn't have a real business without black ink, they made sure that Google--in defiance of the dot-com ethic--would quickly make a profit.

Making money allows Google to resist another bubble-related pitfall: a premature IPO. "We don't need it," says CEO Eric Schmidt, a former Sun and Novell exec who joined a year ago. "We are doing very well as a private company."

Since it's free to users, how does Google rake in bucks? License fees from places like Yahoo or AOL. Corporate sales--big operations pay as much as a half-million dollars to use Google technology to search their own information. And for as little as $20,000, moderate enterprises can buy Google in a Box, a pizza-size server. But the bulk of the company's revenues (estimated at $100 million this year, and growing at a 100 percent rate) come from the much-maligned category of advertising.

Every Web site insists that its ads provide welcome information, but Google can actually say this with a straight face. "We believe ads have to be relevant to what the user is looking for," says Brin. Advertisers buy words associated with given searches: for a fixed fee (which can reach six figures), they can run campaigns to place a couple of lines on top of the results. And with its AdWords program, Google auctions text-based ads that sit to the right of the results. These "sponsored links" are clearly labeled and limited to eight per page, with no intrusive graphics, banners or pop-ups. "We value our white space on the page very highly," says Google exec Sheryl Sandberg.

Held sacrosanct are the actual search results--they can't be bought. "We take a blood oath on that issue," says Schmidt. But in a small number of cases, Google does mess with the results. It tries to identify and block results from hard-core-porn sites. It has removed certain links that the Church of Scientology contends are in violation of its intellectual-property rights. In its foreign-language versions, Google will follow the local laws, removing, for instance, Holocaust-denial sites. Some people find this censoring worrisome, as they view Google as an infallible reporter of everything on the Web, good and bad.

Google's leaders know that their importance often puts them in risky territory. "Every possible contentious political issue comes up at Google," says Brin. Generally, they go for openness, though they realize that privacy takes a hit when anyone can browse through your life in half a second. Page figures folk will simply adjust: "People are starting to realize, because Google exists, that when you publish something online, it might be associated with you forever."

"Google is a fabulously important central resource, and bears something of a unique responsibility," says Ben Edelman, who co-conducted a Harvard study that revealed 113 objectionable sites missing from foreign-based Google searches. Google agrees, but thinks that the marketplace will take care of the problem. "Every Google query is by choice," says Eric Schmidt. "Our competitors are only a click away."

Indeed, now that Google has revitalized the world of Internet searching, a new wave of slick rivals has emerged. But as of now, AlltheWeb and Teoma have yet to become verbs. And the ultimate competitor, Microsoft, thinks that Google, despite its denials, really wants to be a portal. "The next step in their life cycle is parlaying all the traffic they get into opportunities," says Yusef Medhi, head of Microsoft Network. "And that's where it gets tricky."

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, however, insist that they will maintain their focus. Indeed, Google's main efforts have been in collecting more information to search, and providing new ways to do it. The home page now includes a means to search the Web for images, and there's also a Google dictionary and a Google phone book. If your results are in a foreign language, Google will translate for you. Coming next are special searches for products and quotations.

A recent triumph is Google News, which scours news sites for up-the-the-minute stories, automatically arranging them into a Web page similar to those posted by CNN or Yahoo. Journalism pundits bemoaned how "a computer" could emulate flesh-and-blood editors, but they missed the point. Like all of the company's products, Google News is not about computers making lists, but formulas that extract the combined judgment of human beings posting information to the Internet.

From the office Brin and Page share--a warren crammed with toy cars, kites, hockey sticks and, of course, computer screens dominating their door-on-sawhorse desks--the cofounders dream up even wilder plans. "The ultimate search engine would be smart; it would understand everything in the world," says Page.

"I view Google as a way to augment your brain with the knowledge of the world," says Brin. "It will be included in your brain."

So you have a funny feeling you're being Googled? Get used to it.