The World According To Google
Todd Hylton's business lived by Google, and it nearly died by Google. Last fall, his Maryland-based insurance agency ranked No. 2 in the search engine's listings when Web surfers punched in "car insurance." Orders rolled in from online customers around the country. Then one Monday in November, his site was nowhere to be found. "I was stunned," says Hylton. "Just like that, I saw my business disappearing--poof!"
The feared "Google death penalty" had fallen with no warning, and Hylton struggled to keep his business going. He wasn't alone. Online bulletin boards late last year filled with panicked webmasters trying to divine what had happened to their Google rankings. The search engine had quietly revised its secret formula for ranking Web sites. In doing so, it had altered which sites appear on its first page of results--that piece of Internet real estate coveted by webmasters worldwide.
It was just another, if particularly vivid, display of Google's grip on the Web's wealth of information. To bring some order to the wildly disorganized Web, Google has written rules that have changed the way we interact with the Internet, with knowledge in general, and even with each other.
That "Google" has become a verb synonymous with search is only one testament to its reach. The company has been thriving in spite of the Internet bust. Its technology handled nearly 80 percent of U.S. Web queries last year. Now it is planning to sell stock to the public in a megadeal that will add $2.7 billion to a war chest already fattened by profits and make paper millionaires of many Google employees (box, Page 47).
Google has succeeded because it's quicker than riffling through Yellow Pages for a store's number, cheaper than an investigator for scoping a date, and closer than the library when crashing on a term paper. It even finds a sunny escape for a midwesterner tired of the cold. "I Googled 'home for rent' and 'January and February,' and up popped a description and photos of the place we're now staying," says Larry Bodine, a marketing consultant who temporarily fled his Illinois home for Tucson, Ariz. "I can't imagine living without Google."
But with power comes scrutiny. Many of us feel a touch of discomfort at Google's ability to unearth long-forgotten facts about ourselves, preserving them in an Internet time warp. And disappointed entrepreneurs aren't alone in asking how Google decides what to display and what to leave out. "Google essentially determines what exists on the Internet and what doesn't," says Harvard law Prof. Jonathan Zittrain.
Web of secrecy. Zittrain and others say Google's largely secret criteria may not always serve up what is most important on the Web but what is most popular. They are calling on Google and other search engines to be more open about how they rank sites. Otherwise, those critics say, we are entrusting what amounts to our biggest public library to pure market forces--forces that are sure to intensify. Going public will subject Google to pressure from investors to increase profits. And the search firm is facing new competition, as giants from Yahoo! to Microsoft try to beat Google at its own game.