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In Google we trust

With an estimated 200 million searches logged daily, the Web site that has become a verb has gained a near-religious quality in the minds of many users

By David Hochman  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The Google search engine has become a global phenomenon, with 200 million queries a day from over 100 countries. What people are looking to find out says a lot about what separates cultures -- and what they have in common. Greg Rae, a software engineer at Google, keeps his eye on the ``Geo Display'' -- a large plasma monitor with a 3D representation of Google's live queries from around the world at Google Headquarters in Mountain View, California.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Ben Silverman is what you might call a Google obsessive. A producer and a former talent agent best known for bringing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to US television, Silverman Googles people he is lunching with. He Googles for breaking news, restaurant reviews and obscure song lyrics. He Googles prospective reality-show contestants to make sure they don't have naked pictures floating around the Web. And, like every self-respecting Hollywood player, he Googles himself. Competitively.

"Guys all over town are on the phone saying, `I bet I can get more Google hits than you.'" he said recently. "It's become this ridiculous new power game."

It's more like the new kabbalah. With an estimated 200 million searches logged daily, Google, the most popular Internet search engine, "has a near-religious quality in the minds of many users," said Joseph Janes, an associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who taught a graduate seminar on Google this semester.

"A few years ago, you would have talked to a trusted friend about arthritis or where to send your kids to college or where to go on vacation. Now we turn to Google," he said.

The Web site that has become a verb is many things to many people, and to some, perhaps too much: a dictionary, a detective service, a matchmaker, a recipe generator, an ego massager, a spiffy new add-on for the brain. Behind the rainbow logo, Google is changing culture and consciousness. Or maybe not -- maybe it's the world's biggest time-waster, a vacuous rabbit hole where, in January, 60 million Americans, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings, foraged for long-lost prom dates and the theme from Doogie Howser, MD.

"In one sense, with Google, everything is knowable now," said Esther Dyson, who publishes Release 1.0, a technology-industry newsletter. "We were much more passive about information in the past. We would go to the library or the phone book, and if it wasn't there, we didn't worry about it. Now, people can't as easily drift from your life. We can't pretend to be ignorant."

But the flood of unedited information, she said, demands that users sharpen critical thinking skills, to filter the results.

"Google," she said, "forces us to ask, `What do we really want to know?'"

Google delivers information that can radically alter one's self-perception. About a quarter of "vanity" searchers -- those who search for their own names -- say they are surprised by how much information they find about themselves, according to a survey by the Pew Internet Project.

Sometimes, they're really surprised. When Orey Steinmann, 17, of Los Angeles, entered his unusual name on Google's query line, he discovered that he was listed on a Canadian Web site for missing children and told a teacher. After an investigation, county officials took him into protective custody last month and federal marshals arrested his mother, Gisele Marie Goudreault. She has been charged in Canada with parental abduction, said Barbara Masterson, an assistant US attorney in Los Angeles. Canadian authorities are seeking Goudreault's extradition, and Orey is deciding whether to contact the father he never knew.

Then there are the Google miracle stories. The morning after five left-handed electric guitars owned by Robert McLaughlin were stolen from a storage room at his San Diego apartment complex last year, he searched Google's image library for guitar photos to use on a reward poster. Instead, he found the stolen goods.

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