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If employees at Google are anxious about the future, you wouldn’t know it from a visit to the company’s headquarters. Since last fall, when talk of an initial public offering got investors salivating, the organization has been under unusual scrutiny: some observers have called it “the hottest company on the planet,” while others claim it’s a business in leaderless disarray, with competitors crowding in and major customers on the verge of defection. But the Google complex in Mountain View, CA, is as outwardly carefree as any college campus. The main lobby is a study in shagadelic kitsch, with a baby grand piano, a spinning party light, and a row of neon-bright lava lamps arranged in the same blue-red-yellow-blue-green-red sequence as the company’s familiar logo. The cafeteria pulses with rock music, shouted conversation, and the sounds of geeks slurping free gourmet food. Upstairs, in the cubicle farms, programmers chitchat across walkways littered with toys, Segway transporters, and the occasional canine.

It’s only when I sit down in a quiet conference room with Google director of technology Craig Silverstein that the giddy dot-com mood turns more serious. Now that companies like Google and Internet ad agency Overture have demonstrated that displaying subject-specific paid ads alongside the results on a search page is a real moneymaker-contributing to an estimated $2 billion in industrywide revenues in 2003-a pack of wannabes are investing in search software they say will give users more pertinent results than Google’s, faster. I ask Silverstein whether Google’s famous focus on better technology will keep it ahead of all that competition. His answer is circumspect.

“It’s very easy to move from one search engine to a better one,” he says. Google pays hundreds of researchers and software developers, including more than 60 PhDs, to man the front lines in this technology war, explains Silverstein, who is himself on extended leave from his doctoral studies in computer science at Stanford University. But he acknowledges that’s no guarantee of victory. “We hope the next breakthrough comes from Google-but who knows?”

Who knows, indeed? According to Reston, VA-based research firm comScore, Google has a large lead over its rivals in U.S. audience share, accounting for 77 percent of all searches in August 2003 (including searches conducted at AOL and Yahoo!, which used the Google search engine). But in the search industry, innovation is a wild card. “In 1999, you could have said that AltaVista had pretty much finished off the search market,” notes Whit Andrews, a research director at technology advisory firm Gartner. “In 1997, it was Inktomi. In 1995, it was Yahoo!. You never know in the search business when there’s somebody down the street who is going to make you look like yesterday’s news.”

Google is vulnerable partly because it has few of the infrastructural advantages, like AT&T’s once exclusive ownership of most of the telephone network or Microsoft’s control of PC operating systems, that typically help to perpetuate dominance. (Indeed, press reports in January indicated that Yahoo! might soon drop its relationship with Google and turn to its own search technology.) And the company’s claim to fame-the ability of its search algorithms to find the most relevant results, based on their popularity-may be growing stale. “When Google first launched, they had some new tricks that nobody else had thought about before,” says Doug Cutting, an independent software consultant who wrote some of the core technology behind search engine Excite and has designed search tools for Apple Macintosh computers. But plenty of other search engines now offer intriguing alternatives to Google’s techniques, Cutting believes.

For example, there’s Teoma, which ranks results according to their standing among recognized authorities on a topic, and Australian startup Mooter, which studies the behavior of users to better intuit exactly what they’re looking for. And then there’s the gorilla from Redmond: Microsoft is turning to search as one of its next big business opportunities. Its researchers are devising a new operating system that melds Google-like search functions into all Windows programs, as well as software that scours the Web for definitive answers to questions you phrase in everyday English. Meanwhile, Yahoo! launched its own research laboratory in January, and Cutting himself is building an open-source alternative to Google. “Nowadays,” he says, “I’m not convinced [Google is] markedly better.”

Whichever technology hooks tomorrow’s Web surfers, its builder will earn enormous influence-and handsome profits. Some 550 million search requests are entered every day worldwide (245 million of them in the United States). By 2007, the paid-placement advertising revenue generated by all these searches will reach about $7 billion, says Piper Jaffray analyst Safa Rashtchy. Yet surveys indicate that almost a quarter of users don’t find what they’re looking for in the first set of links returned by a search engine. That’s partly because the precious needles of information we seek are buried under a haystack that grows by some 60 terabytes every day. And it’s why brutal competition in the search industry is certain to continue, especially as search companies usher in a host of advanced technologies, such as natural-language processing and machine learning. “Over the next five to ten years,” says Rashtchy, “we could see massive improvements that provide orders-of-magnitude increases in relevancy and usage.” And it’s the competition to deliver those improvements-much more than the success or failure of Google’s rumored IPO, expected by many to happen this spring-that is likely to determine how we will be navigating the Web a few years from now.

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