News & Politics

Google Is Cool

Four years after the tech bust, Google is rewriting the rules of engagement. The search engine's success is the Web's own 'local boy makes good' story.
As economists and pundits wet themselves with glee over the announcement that internet search engine Google will be filing for an initial public offering later this year, you may be asking yourself one very salient question: "So?"

Whether Google's IPO will rain money from the sky or go down as yet another dot-bomb remains to be seen. But Google is already an improbable success story with all the internet-era trimmings.

The little company that was started by Stanford dropouts Larry Page and Sergey Brin is now the largest and most powerful search engine in a web dominated by Microsoft and Yahoo. Most amazingly, they did it all without being evil.

"Don't be evil" is the corporate mantra around Google HQ, and their business decisions over the years have proven it. In 1998, when Google started, it was the year of the "portal," when their competitors were all crowding their homepages with so much junk it became hard to even find the search box. Google kept their homepage pristine -- a blank white page with one simple box and two buttons: Google Search and "I'm Feeling Lucky" which, when clicked, takes you directly to the top result for your query. The layout has hardly changed in six years.

When their competitors began mixing paid placement listings with actual search results, Google stayed pure, drawing a clear line between search results and advertising. The rest of the major search engines still make their results pages a morass of paid advertisements and actual search results, supplied by placement payola company Overture. Try a search for "hotel" in the top search engines and you can see just how crowded they are with paid placements (see graphic). Google is still the best place to get the content you came for, not what marketers want you to see.

Searching for Hotel

Speaking of advertisements, Google was the first major company to pioneer text-only advertisements on their pages. While other companies filled their pages with flashing banner ads screaming, "punch the monkey" with epileptic frequency, Google's ads were a breath of fresh, text-based air. And they found that, when you don't annoy the user with flashing graphics, they're actually more likely to click your ad.

As their IPO filing proves, Google now makes most of its money from its advertising programs, AdSense and AdWords. AdWords is wonderfully democratic: Anyone can buy an ad that will appear around certain keywords (though the ad is clearly separated from the search results). People who make websites can also sign up to display the Google AdSense ads, and make a pretty penny from clickthroughs, too.

There has been controversy in this department. When webzine Unknown News decided to advertise their "Who would Jesus Bomb?" bumper sticker, the ad was initially rejected by Google because their policy does not permit the advertisement of websites that contain "language that advocates against an individual, group, or organization," a policy intended to vet hate sites.

After a passionate email exchange with Unknown News, Google relented and the ad went online. Google walks a tough line, legally and ethically. They are, after all, in the business of organizing all the world's information. But at least in this case, when confronted with the truth, they show a willingness to learn from their mistakes.

Outside of advertising, Google's core business is search, and they still do it better than anyone else. Google's search results are created by a complicated secret algorithm called PageRank. What sets Google's PageRank apart from the imitators is that it takes the social aspect of web pages into account.

When Google started, most search engines were simply indexing web pages -- making an internal record of what words appeared on which pages. So, if you searched for "great idea," you'd get a list of pages that all contained the phrase "great idea." Great idea, right?

But the lingua franca of the web is the hyperlink, and PageRank's key innovation is that it also keeps track of what words are used to link from one page to another. So, when you search for "good idea" in Google, in addition to finding pages that contain that phrase, you can also find pages that were linked to with that phrase, even if they don't contain it. This has given rise to "Google Bombing" wherein a bunch of sites all gang up and link to one site with a certain phrase. For example, as of this writing, searching Google for "miserable failure" has a fascinating first result.

The basic idea is, Google is mining the very fabric of the web -- the connections between pages -- and using those connections to find the relevant words to describe those pages. And, in the giant worldwide mess of information that is the internet, relevance is the holy grail.

Google has gotten where it is today by being the scrappy underdog that did it better than the rest. Now that their name is synonymous with web search, their real challenge is staying true to their "don't be evil" mantra in the face of greater scrutiny. The company was caught off guard last month when their newest project hit the fan.

Gmail is a web-based email service, run by Google, with one gigabyte of storage space. Even though it was no prank, it opened for limited beta testing on April 1, an indication of Google's sense of humor. (Full disclosure: I am one of the testers) It's not even open to the public yet, but that didn't stop several privacy advocacy groups and one California Senator from going ballistic.

At issue was the inclusion of Google's context-sensitive ads, the very same ads that appear discreetly on the side of Google's pages, on the side of the email pages. When these ads "Sponsored Links" appear in search results, they're triggered by the words you searched for. The same is true in Gmail -- the ads that appear on the side of the page were triggered by words used in the email you're reading. Privacy groups cried foul.

But the service wasn't appending ads to your outgoing mail (as Microsoft's Hotmail does) or berating you with annoying banner ads (as almost all rivals do). And besides, no humans are reading the email -- just Google's systems doing what they do best: finding relevance. And in the end, it's a free, voluntary service. Of all the problems facing California, it's amazing that Senator Liz Figueroa would find Gmail the most pressing.

Google seemed to be caught off guard by the brouhaha, but life is different when you're on top. Their innovations have engendered a lot of criticism -- much of which seems rooted in post-boom-era cynicism. It's my hope that Google sticks to its unabashedly idealistic guns throughout its IPO and beyond. Either way, they're already a success story for everyone who has ever wanted to make a buck without being evil.

Derek Powazek is the Online Director of AlterNet.
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