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Things About Google You Probably Didn't Know
Lesser men might have considered that a bad omen, but Page and Brin are not bad omen kind of guys. The Wallace and Gromit of the information age, they are now worth more than $10 billion each.
Google does not search the internet. If it did, the internet would grind to a halt under the strain of all the searching taking place, because Google alone (not to mention the competition) makes upwards of 100m searches every day. Instead the program searches a copy of the internet downloaded onto its own computers. A full circuit of all the web pages in the world takes roughly a month, which is why the information on Google is often a few days old.
Having copied the internet, it then indexes it by charting every word on a web page, where it stands in relation to other words, whether or not a word is listed in a title, whether it is listed in a special typeface, how frequently it is listed on the page and so on. There are more than 100 of these criteria and Google gives a numeric weight to every one of them. When a query arrives — which it does at the rate of many times every second — Google searches the index and lists pages in order of relevance, usually within half a second or so.
Even if you didn’t know a thing about computers, you could tell this involves a truly scary amount of computational power. When the program was conceived, Page thought he would be able to download an entire copy of the internet to his own PC. That turned out not to be the case: Page and Brin ended up having to scrounge, cadge, rustle up and “borrow” every scrap of computational power they could find at Stanford to gather the necessary data.
What they learnt in the process became one of their great strengths. Google does not run on huge expensive mainframe computers, but on a large number of bog-standard over-the-counter PCs. When one breaks, it is replaced. Without their experience in student bodging, the founders of Google would never have learnt how to put together a computer cluster that combined such replaceable simplicity with such computational muscle.
Traffic to the site grew at great speed, all without a cent spent on marketing. Google managed to build a huge business through small ads. Next time you do a search on Google, have a look at the “sponsored links” on the right of the results. These are paid advertisements. The ads have been bid for by people who bid for specific words, or combinations of words: 75 cents for “digital camera”, but $1.08 for “digital cameras” (because people who click on the plural are more likely to buy).
Google’s ads are so effective at generating income because they tap directly into the intentions of people looking for things. An ad in any normal medium is, to a degree, a form of broadcasting: it will appear in front of many people who have no interest. The Google ads appear only in front of people already looking for the thing they are advertising; this is something nobody foresaw about the internet, that its “killer app” (killer application) was the ability to find services and information. The received wisdom in the business was that a search was a “commodity”, something it was simple to buy from the cheapest provider. In disproving that, Google showed that it was wired straight into the global id.
Is Google a good thing? The geek in me wants to say yes. It has certainly made finding information incomparably easier. Some of the information is even true . . . Actually, that’s not fair, but a lot of what is on the net is false and the Google-derived mistake is something you now notice. One example occurred on the death of Hunter S Thompson when several newspapers shared with us President Richard Nixon’s opinion that “Hunter S Thompson represented the dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character”. Except Nixon didn’t say that about Thompson; Thompson said it about Nixon. But a site giving the line the wrong way round was the first one up on Google.
Despite such glitches, Google is invaluable. I’ve used it on a more or less daily basis for the past five years. Google Scholar, which searches academic papers, is very useful. The powerful calculator feature will do advanced maths as well as highly practical things such as converting square feet into metres. Google News terrifies conventional news organisations. Google Earth isn’t particularly useful but it is brutally cool: you begin with a satellite view and gradually descend to Earth, homing in with a level of detail which can give you a view of your own house (or a secret military installation). Froogle, the shopping search service, has a feature which chills the blood of conventional retailers: when you see something you want to buy, you can text its name to 64664 and Froogle will text back the best price it can find.
Technologically, Google is an amazing thing. As for whether it is a good thing, that depends on what happens next. A strength of the firm — its rootedness in graduate student nerd culture — is also a weakness in the form of a certain arrogance. Google Book Search, its plan to scan all the world’s books, sounds ambitious, to put it mildly, but Google has the resources and determination to do it. It is digitising millions of books and is already providing access to out-of-copyright volumes. It also started digitising copyrighted books in the United States until it was stopped by a lawsuit from the American Association of Publishers.
The plan is not simply to give the books away: although the whole book will be scanned and stored, only specific fragments of text will be displayed. It will be the best shop window for obscure texts. Besides, isn’t the company policy “Don’t be evil”? But to publishers there is something outrageously hypocritical about the contrast between Google’s ferocious protection of its own intellectual property rights and its contempt for everyone else’s. What ’s to stop Google giving free online access to the books once they are scanned? At the moment Google says it has no intention of providing access to this content; but why should anybody believe it? This is why Google’s activities in China have the potential to be such a disaster for the company. So far everyone who has invested in Google has made out like the proverbial bandit; but one day the share price will drop and people who have bought shares will find they have lost money. It is then that Google’s leaders will come under pressure to find some uses for that goldmine of personal data.
Google is cool, but Google has the potential to destroy the publishing industry, the newspaper business, high street retailing and our privacy. Not that it will necessarily do any of these things, but for the first time, considered soberly, they are technologically possible. The company is rich and determined and is not going away any time soon. It knows what it is doing technologically; socially, though, it can’t possibly know and I don’t think anyone else can either.
The above was originally by:
John Lanchester who is the author of The Debt to Pleasure. This is an updated version of an article that appears in the London Review of Books (www.lrb.co.uk)
Whether you like google or not, they're definitely the "Alpha-Company" of their field. Chances are: you've either used google or you've used a google technology. But just to keep things balanced, I've included -on this site- a search engine that displays google results and its #1 rival yahoo's results side by side......just type in a search querry in the box below or near the top of this site where you see "Twingine Search" and you'll see what I mean. Search& Enjoy!
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