The World According To Google
Those results can include a remarkable, even unnerving, range of information. Criminal convictions from a wayward youth, thought to be long locked away, can surface under a name search as courts post records to the Web. "Googledorks" troll the search engine hoping to find illicit data, such as lists of credit card numbers, that landed in Google's library after its spiders slipped through holes in a company's Web site security.
Lucretia Marcus of Alamo, Calif., Googled herself and was startled to find her unlisted, unpublished phone number. She hadn't realized that the dog clubs she joined post newsletters to the Web. "I also didn't know someone would be gathering such bits of information," she says. "It felt a little like Big Brother at work." Marcus is a little unnerved by her life's new transparency, although she considers Google a crucial resource.
Brin and Page added to the credibility of their nascent Web tool when they refused to sell companies a place in their rankings or even to allow "paid inclusion," in which companies pay for a guaranteed listing in a search engine's library. Those steps cemented Google's popularity among Internet-savvy academics and technologists. "Google wants no whiff of impropriety," says Nate Elliott, an analyst at Jupiter Research. "Its greatest asset is customer trust."
The company reaps profits with unobtrusive ads displayed off to the right side of results. Advertisers bid on certain keywords, such as "swimming pools," and their ads pop up when a user searches on those terms. Google also earns profits by placing ads on other Web sites, matching the ads to keywords that appear on those pages. For example, it might run pool ads on a news site displaying stories about hot weather.
Price of success? Yet the drive for profits is already forcing Google to change. "It will become more like Yahoo!, while Yahoo! will become more like Google," says Greg Boser, an Internet consultant. Boser predicted not long ago that the first victim would be the home page's sparse look. Sure enough, Google recently made telling changes to its opening page. It added prominent links to moneymaking services, such as "Froogle," which helps shoppers on the Web, and removed a gray screen behind the ads that had made them easy to tell apart from the free listings.
While Google loses some of its perceived purity, competitors are racing to catch up with its power. Internet giant Yahoo! earlier this year dropped Google as its search engine in favor of one that it is cobbling together from several acquisitions. That alone dropped Google's market share to about 50 percent, and now the largest of the computing giants, Microsoft, is preparing to launch its own engine. These days, Google's link-counting strategy is widely employed across the Web, while competitors (and Google, for that matter) try new tweaks to deliver better results. The site Ask Jeeves, for example, bought Teoma, an engine that identifies "hub" sites, ones linked to many related pages. It's a means of tapping "community discussions" to find helpful results and even related topics a searcher might not have thought of. Says Jim Lanzone of Ask Jeeves, "We're using social networking to find relevant results."