Copyright 2000 Bill Clede. All rights reserved.
First published in Shotgun News, December 2000.

Don't look back...

The World Wide Web is Catching Up

by Bill Clede

Navigation on the Web can be a full time job. As soon as I begin to feel comfortable using a particular search engine, it changes. Now there is a whole new kind of search engine with uncanny speed and accuracy.

google.jpg (36286 bytes)Just as the product is unusual, so is the company. Stamford University buddies Larry Page, 27, and Sergey Brin, 26, developed what is now the Web's largest and hippest search engine, according to Time Magazine. In just two years it has gained a reputation for uncanny speed and accuracy, delivering just what you're looking for in a fraction of a second. It does this 40 million times a day.

That's not quite a googol (10100, 1 followed by 100 zeroes) but it's a hit rate achieved without spending a penny on TV or newspaper advertising. Google.com has won the Webby (online version of the Oscar) for technical excellence, set a new record for search engines by indexing a billion web pages, and got tapped by industry Giant Yahoo to become it's default search engine. If Yahoo doesn't find your search parameters, it automatically shunts you to Google.com.

The 120 employees at the two-story office block off Route 101 known as Googleplex have everything one could wish for. There's a full time masseuse, yoga classes, and the Ben and Jerry bars you can eat and organic catering by the fellow who used to do meals for the Grateful Dead. The only table in the boardroom is for Ping-Pong. There's pool, shuffleboard, two pianos, twice-weekly hockey games, and even a bedroom.

When Page and Brin first met as Ph.D. students, they found each other "obnoxious". But when they tackled a computer-science project aimed at devising better ways of searching the Web.

The idea behind Google is that traditional search engines are infuriatingly stupid. They think relevance is related to repetition. If you type a request for Tiger Woods, you'll get web sites listed according to how many times those words appear. That's no guarantee of quality and is open to abuse. If you have a Tiger Woods site for fans, just type his name into the source code thousands of times and search engines will list your site first.

Consider the man-hours corporations spend on online research and multiply that by the increasing chaos of the Web and you see that millions of dollars leak out of the economy without productive benefit.

Google's answer is to treat the Internet as a democracy with links between web sites as the votes. The most linked-to web sites rise to the top of Google's search results. More weight is given to sites with millions of links themselves. Popularity equals quality, thus a computer program can evaluate what's the good stuff.

It seems to work. With a tenth the audience of Yahoo, Google consistently ranks first in customer satisfaction, 97% of users find what they're looking for most of the time. Page and Brin built the site using parts from 6,000 off-the-shelf PCs -- huge tangles of spaghetti wiring and lasagna-layers of motherboards that actually run cheaper and faster than mess-free million-dollar servers.

Google licenses the search engine to other dotcoms but they charge per search, rather than the usual flat fee. That's why they expect to turn a profit soon. They do not offer the top-heavy extras you find on most search engines: stock quotes, sports scores and email. The whole idea of Goggle is to get you on and off the site as quickly as possible.

I tried a search on "bill clede" and Google returned 433 hits in .59 seconds. Then I tried a search on sites that link to www.clede.com and got a list of 188 in .16 seconds. That's fast, but it seems to be just the time it takes to display the first ten hits.

I tried a search on "Luger Pistol" and got the first ten of a list of 4,670 hits in .09 seconds. I looked through about 130 of the links and all seemed related to the Luger. It was only after 90 hits that results started including some fringe hits.

Google lets you generate a new search just among the results of your search so I added the word Museum. That produced 411 hits. One link just had to be investigated. It was a reference to Cobb's illness and death. It turned out to be an article describing the end of Ty Cobb's life, "Cobb checked into Emery Hospital for the last time in June 1961 bringing with him a paper bag with a million or so dollars in securities and his Luger pistol"

The fascination about the World Wide Web is that you can find a wealth of information on it. The hazard of the World Wide Web is that you can find a wealth of information on it. Just remember that the Web is as reliable as the people posting on it. If someone tells you the moon is made of green cheese, you have to consider the source. If it were the late Carl Sagan, I'd be tempted to believe him. If it were Joe Schmoe, I'd be tempted to doubt him.

 Send feedback to bill@clede.com. Visit Bill's Web Site at www.clede.com/.

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