Inside the Box

By Levy, Steven | Wired, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Inside the Box


Levy, Steven, Wired


INSIDE THE BOX

When it comes to finding stuff, there's Google and there's everyone else. An exclusive look at the algorithm that rules the Web.

Want to know how Google is about to change your life? Stop by the Ouagadougou conference room on a Thursday morning. It is here, at the Mountain View, California, headquarters of the world's most powerful Internet company, that a room filled with three dozen engineers, product managers, and executives figure out how to make their search engine even smarter. This year, Google will introduce 550 or so improvements to its fabled algorithm, and each will be determined at a gathering just like this one. The decisions made at the weekly Search Quality Launch Meeting will wind up affecting the results you get when you use Google's search engine to look for anything Samsung SF-755p printer, Ed Hardy MySpace layouts, or maybe even capital Burkina Faso, which just happens to share its name with this conference room. Udi Manber, Google's head of search since 2006, leads the proceedings. One by one, potential modifications are introduced, along with the results of months of testing in various countries and multiple languages. A screen displays side-by-side results of sample queries before and after the change. Following one example a search for guitar center wah-wah Manber cries out, I did that search!

You might think that after a solid decade of search-market dominance, Google could relax. After all, it holds a commanding 65 percent market share and is still the only company whose name is synonymous with the verb search. But just as Google isn't ready to rest on its laurels, its competitors aren't ready to concede defeat. For years, the Silicon Valley monolith has used its mysterious, seemingly omniscient algorithm to, as its mission statement puts it, organize the world's information. But over the past five years, a slew of companies have challenged Google's central premise: that a single search engine, through technological wizardry and constant refinement, can satisfy any possible query. Facebook launched an early attack with its implication that some people would rather get information from their friends than from an anonymous formula. Twitter's ability to parse its constant stream of updates introduced the concept of real-time search, a way of tapping into the latest chatter and conversation as it unfolds. Yelp helps people find restaurants, dry cleaners, and babysitters by crowdsourcing the ratings. None of these upstarts individually presents much of a threat, but together they hint at a wide-open, messier future of search one that isn't dominated by a single engine but rather incorporates a grab bag of services.

Still, the biggest threat to Google can be found 850 miles to the north: Bing. Microsoft's revamped and rebranded search engine with a name that evokes discovery, a famous crooner, or Tony Soprano's strip joint launched last June to surprisingly upbeat reviews. (The Wall Street Journal called it more inviting than Google. ) The new look, along with a $100 million ad campaign, helped boost Microsoft's share of the US search market from 8 percent to about 11 a number that will more than double once regulators approve a deal to make Bing the search provider for Yahoo.

Team Bing has been focusing on unique instances where Google's algorithms don't always satisfy. For example, while Google does a great job of searching the public Web, it doesn't have real-time access to the byzantine and constantly changing array of flight schedules and fares. So Microsoft purchased Farecast a Web site that tracks airline fares over time and uses the data to predict when ticket prices will rise or fall and incorporated its findings into Bing's results. Microsoft made similar acquisitions in the health, reference, and shopping sectors, areas where it felt Google's algorithm fell short.

Even the Bingers confess that, when it comes to the simple task of taking a search term and returning relevant results, Google is still miles ahead. …

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