COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Search wizardry

Since it was launched on Sept. 21, 1999, Google (www.google.com) has become the most popular search engine because it has proven to be so much more effective in providing answers to search requests than previous engines. It is one of the most significant inventions in making the Internet so effective.

Prior to Google, just a short four years ago, the alternative was to conduct multiple searches with different search engines or use services that searched these engines simultaneously. The problem was that they usually provided too many results with many not particularly relevant.

Google has an astonishing ability to provide relevant answers, while filtering out less important results. Its search technology is based on a patented approach that determines a Web page's popularity based upon the number of links from other pages pointing to that page. The underlying assumption is a page is important if other pages refer to it. It's much like going to a small town and searching for the most popular restaurants. The old way is making a list of all the businesses you come to with the word "restaurant" on the signs, but this will not tell you which are the most popular. The Google approach is to look at which restaurants are most frequented.

Goggle, of course, utilizes many additional techniques to refine its searches and make them effective. For example, it looks at the words actually used on Web pages and discounts the practice of some sites that imbed words on their pages just to improve their ranking.

Google has grown incredibly fast and has added a tremendous amount of functionality and features since 1999. It is constantly building and updating its database of Web pages. In December 2000 it had a database of 600 million pages, a year later 1.5 billion, and more than 3 billion earlier this year. It now is used for about 300 million searches per day and is available in about 50 languages.

Beyond its basic search capabilities, Google has added many new features that make it easy to use and some powerful new features that redefine the word search.

One of the most useful features is the free Google toolbar available at www.toolbar.google.com, which adds a Google search window to your Internet browser, enabling you to search directly from the page without needing to go to the Google home page to do a search. Built into the toolbar are drop down lists to access other Google features, as well as a variety of free accessories that all work quite well. There is a Popup blocker, which effectively blocks most pop-up ads while still allowing other noncommercial pop-up windows to open. Another feature is AutoFill; once you fill out a form on Google with your name, address, etc., you can then populate most any form with a single click.

The toolbar also displays a bar graph ranking the popularity of the site you are on, and an "up one level" icon which takes you up one level from the displayed Web address.

(Note that when you install the toolbar, Google records every site you visit in order to establish its ranking data. The company does not tie this information to your identity, but it is an issue that has been raised by privacy advocates. Like other businesses, Google "will release specific personal information about you if required to do so in order to comply with any valid legal process such as a search warrant, subpoena, statute or court order.")

One of the newest and most useful features is Google Alert! You can use this to conduct searches periodically and automatically. The search results are updated and e-mailed to you on a regular basis. This is great for tracking a developing story or breaking news about a company, sports or just keeping abreast of an ongoing topic.

Google also has a feature called Google News, a Web site with the latest news that can be accessed directly from the toolbar or by going to www.news.google.com. This site is continuously updated from searching more than 4,500 news sites, labeling each story by the number of hours old. With no advertising or pop-up ads, this is an excellent one-stop news site for world, U.S. and business news.

At the top of the search result page are tabs, one of which is labeled "Images."

Click on this tab and it will show the results of a search in images instead of words. Try typing your name and while you may not see your image you will see others with the same name.

Like most things about Google, there is much more behind its simple interface than first meets the eye. The Google search window, the little white rectangle where you enter your search words, has much more versatility than you may think. It has the intelligence to interpret the type of data you enter and then act accordingly.

For example, Google can be used as a dictionary or thesaurus. Enter a word into the search box, as you would do normally. Hit return and then click on the same word near the top of the search page beneath the Google logo, to obtain a complete dictionary and thesaurus definition.

Type a formula into the search window to access Goggle's math and conversion calculator. Typing in "23 x 456," "sin36" or "pi* 45^2" returns the correct answer. For conversions, type in "256 feet in meters" and you will get "256 feet = 78.0288 meters."

Google also has a phone book function that looks up U.S. street address and phone numbers. Type in a residence phone number in the search window and up comes the address and person associated with that number. Or type in the name of a person and their zip code or city and up will come the phone number and street address. Similarly, for business lookups, type in the company name and city and up will come the listing. It is so effective it is almost eerie, and while Google uses only public information, it shows how transparent our privacy really is. I use this function instead of using the phone company's 411, which can cost a dollar or more. Just type in a business name and city and usually its phone number will appear on one the top searches. Type in an address and you will get a map of the address. Google does offer the option of removing the name of a personal or business listing if you do not want your name to be listed.

Google's influence has raised the concern of some industry privacy advocates who feel it is becoming as powerful as Microsoft and worry about the potential for misusing of information. Because it is so effective, it has changed our expectations about what we can learn about others. While Google retrieves information based on what is in the public domain, it has little control about what is put into the public domain or what is done with the information it retrieves. There is no denying, however, that Google has empowered all of us to be much more productive in using the vast resources of the Internet.


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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