Google: friend or foe?

Search and destroy

Google: friend or foe?

Figures from WebSideStory, the Internet market research company, make Google responsible for more than 73 per cent of referrals in the UK. When we don’t know where to find the information we’re looking for, we go to Google first.

At Google, everything leads back to search, and to a research project called BackRub, developed by Sergey Brin and Larry Page at Stanford University in 1996. Unlike previous search engines, BackRub looked not just at site content or metadata, but analysed the links leading back to a given website – a practice that consistently delivered more relevant results. While augmented by a mass of newer, smarter algorithms, BackRub remains the working core of Google’s search technology and the backbone of Google’s operations. Page’s opening letter in Google’s prospectus makes this clear: ‘Sergey and I founded Google because we believed we could provide a great service to the world – instantly delivering relevant information on any topic.’

In an interview with Playboy magazine last year, Brin restated the aim in simple terms: ‘Ultimately, you want to have the whole world’s knowledge connected to your mind.’

In essence, this breaks down to two things: making all of the world’s information available and searchable, and making it accessible and searchable from any point. The first is the rationale behind Google Print, an ambitious project to digitise the contents of the world’s most important libraries – including libraries from the universities of Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and Michigan – and behind Google Scholar, a project to share academic research and publications online.

For Google, though, information isn’t limited to websites or even just the written word. This was evident from the moment it launched Google Image Search in 2001, but it’s confirmed by Google Maps, which allows you to search not just for places (for example, Oxford St, London) but local information (Italian restaurants, Oxford St, London) and even directions (Park Lane to Oxford Street). And as if Google Maps’ detailed plans and highlighted routes weren’t enough, the Google Earth project aims to map out the whole planet with views that start in orbit and zoom down to street level, to the extent of featuring 3D buildings in the major cities. Even TV and video are set to be indexed with Google Video, a service caching footage from the Web, making it searchable through subject and content.

And while Google’s remit gets wider, it’s also tightening the focus of its offerings. Google Local narrows down results to a geographic area, ensuring that should you want a printing house that can handle PDFs in Peterborough you’ll get solid results on the first page.

Froogle, meanwhile, favours commercial sites selling the item you’re searching for, safe in the knowledge that you’re not just looking for the product but a reasonable price to match. And if you just want hard news, Google News uses Google’s sophisticated content aggregation algorithms to gather breaking stories in any area you wish to follow, on a customisable page with several preset categories and the chance to create your own using keywords.

Cool tools

And that information isn’t just on the Web. The early Google Toolbar, a simple browser plug-in, has blossomed into the Google Deskbar and now the Google Desktop Sidebar. Users can search their own hard disk with the same tools they use to search the Internet, while accessing email, Google News and web clips chosen both by you (through RSS web feeds) and by Google (through automated analysis of your own web-browsing patterns) without ever needing to load a browser. And if you’re more concerned with images than text, don’t forget Picassa. Google’s 2004 acquisition catalogues and indexes your locally stored images, while offering a range of sharing and printing features.

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