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Meanwhile, Back at the Googleplex

I ask Google technology director Craig Silverstein whether Microsoft’s search buildup keeps him up at night. He acknowledges that Microsoft and Google are exploring some of the same technical territory but contends that because Google is so much smaller than Microsoft (1,000 employees versus 55,000), it can act more nimbly on its ideas. And despite its smaller size overall, Google has more researchers devoted primarily to search than Microsoft. Silverstein also points out that each of Google’s several hundred software developers is required-as part of the job-to spend 10 percent of his or her time on far-out personal projects, which provide a continuous flow of creative ideas.

Some of those projects surface at Google Labs (labs.google.com), a section of the Google site where the public can try out-and comment on-search-related software that’s still in development. Google Viewer, for instance, animates results so that they scroll up the screen like movie credits. Voice Search lets you enter a search by telephone if you happen to be away from your desk, then retrieve the results online later. The Google Deskbar installs a permanent Google search box in the Windows taskbar; results appear in a small, temporary window, so users don’t have to launch their Web browsers every time they want to look something up.

But none of the Google Labs prototypes represents an innovation of the magnitude of Page and Brin’s original PageRank algorithm. Nor are they in the same league as Microsoft’s effort to reinvent Windows and integrate the applications that run on it. While Silverstein and his colleagues will talk about the efficiency of Google’s more than 10,000 Web servers and the passion and drive of Google’s programmers, they won’t say how the company hopes to improve PageRank, or what new technologies might counter threats such as Teoma and AskMSR. So in the end, there’s little outward proof that Google has the new ideas it will need to retain its market share. Says open-source programmer Doug Cutting, “Google has a whole lot of people trying to come up with monumental advances, but we haven’t seen them. I think if they had them, they would show them.”

One thing Silverstein does like to talk about is his long-range goal for search technology, which he believes is still in its infancy. “It’s clear that the answer [to search] is not a ranked list of Web sites,” he says. No one expects to approach a librarian, ask a question about the Panama Canal, and get 50 book titles in response, he argues. Silverstein thinks information retrieval experts should aim high, building software that is every bit as good at pointing users toward the specific resources they need as a well-trained reference librarian. That, of course, will require major advances in fields such as probabilistic machine learning and natural-language processing-and Google continues to hire some of the best new PhDs in those areas, including four recent graduates from the Stanford laboratory of Daphne Koller, a leading machine-learning researcher (see “10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change Your World,” TR February 2004).

But will all that talent be translated into tools people can use? Google itself appeared seemingly from nowhere, rapidly overshadowing other prominent search engines such as AltaVista. And if there is one message spread by the priests of the dot-com boom that still holds true, it is that people’s desire for faster, more efficient ways to do things trumps brand loyalty every time. If rivals like Ask Jeeves and upstarts like Mooter or Dipsie achieve even part of their visions of better ranking algorithms, simpler interfaces, and larger, more comprehensive indexes, they could take a big bite out of Google’s business. Microsoft’s sweeping overhaul of the Windows environment, meanwhile, promises to change the very concept of search for the vast majority of computer users.

The good news for Internet surfers is that competition will make search utilities an even more helpful part of our daily lives. Without search tools, the Web’s riches would be just as inaccessible as the tablets, scrolls, and hand-copied tomes of the pre-Gutenberg age, and as the Web itself grows, so does our need for better ways to penetrate it. But which technologies will provide the access we crave-and who will profit most from them-are questions that not even the best search engines can answer.

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