The New Gatekeepers ; Google and Competing Search Engines Offer Up the Web Their Way: Shallow Results and Lots of Ads. Is That Fair?

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Every second, the world sees three new babies born, 544 McDonald's customers served, and 2,315 Google searches conducted.

Using the search engine to navigate the Internet has become so commonplace that "to Google" is entering the lexicon.

Indeed, Google and its major competitors are putting their own stamp on the digital world: grabbing a major share of online advertising, creating a new Internet industry, and reviving hopes of a return to the heady days when Internet stocks made fortunes overnight.

Most important, they have become the gatekeepers of the digital world. If, as some observers expect, a Big Three of search engines emerges, users will see their Web experience heavily influenced by moneymaking corporations interested in delivering as many eyeballs as they can to advertisers.

That's not necessarily bad, say experts, who compare the phenomenon to the effect of the Yellow Pages on telephone use. But users need to understand how the major search engines influence their Web experience. The results they get are broad and tilted toward commercial, more popular sites.

If they want to really plumb the depths of the Internet, they'll have to rely on tools for "deep" Web searches, which can scour the vast majority of websites that technology used by Google and others just doesn't find.

Search engines represent information gatekeepers unlike any we've had before, says Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and founder of the Association of Internet Researchers. In the past, librarians or newspaper editors might have served that role, connecting people with information they're seeking. "This gatekeeper is a machine. And that's a really interesting difference."

For most Web users, the rise of the gatekeeper means their access to cyberspace - and its vast amount of information and services - is essentially controlled by a handful of companies and their advertisers.

Google is responsible for more than a third of Internet searches in the United States, trailed closely by Yahoo. And behemoth Microsoft says it will enter the market within the next year, forming a Big Three of Internet searchers.

From garage to Gargantua

Six years ago, Google was another California dream, housed in a garage. Now, with its announcement of a public stock sale, everyone's favorite little search engine that could has been officially ordained a multibillion-dollar corporation.

Unlike many of the companies that went public during the Internet boom, search engines are already racking up revenue.

In 2003, advertisers spent some $2.3 billion buying spots on search-engine pages in the US alone, spawning a whole new industry to help companies ensure their websites rise near the top of search rankings.

Search-engine marketing has grown to become the single largest contributor to online advertising revenue, according to comScore Networks.

"Search engines are pretty dominant right now. Most people are going there first in order to find something," says Andy Beal, vice president of search marketing at WebSourced, Inc. "I think that everyone is excited about search" as an ad medium. In contrast, banner ads have declined and "are not as effective as they were, say, five years ago," he says.

Search engines bring a precious commodity to businesses: ready buyers, Mr. Beal says.

"The consumer is initiating the contact. They're telling you what they're looking for," he says.

Market intelligence firm Random Secrecy predicts that search engines will generate purchases of more than $35 billion in 2004, and it expects that figure to rise to $92 billion by 2008.

Search advertising can happen two ways, says Danny Sullivan, editor of online newsletter searchenginewatch.com. Paid placements guarantee the advertiser a spot on the page to the top or side of the rest of the "natural" query results, which are typically calculated by a complex algorithm, including factors like website popularity. …