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Sun, Mar 14, 2004 - Page 12 News List

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 thief was selling them in a live auction," he said. "In the past, my report would have gotten lost in a mountain of paperwork. Because of Google, the cops recovered four of the five guitars that week."

While some compare Google's reservoir of 6 billion documents to the ancient library at Alexandria, it often feels like the shallowest ocean on earth.

"Google can be useful as a starting point to research or for superficial inquests," said James Billington, the Librarian of Congress. "But far too often, it is a gateway to illiterate chatter, propaganda and blasts of unintelligible material."

The trouble is, despite those queries that return 753,000 Internet links in 0.34 second, Google is by no means a fount of human knowledge. It is short on history, since most Web pages have been created since 1995, and it is overloaded with sex, sports, conspiracy theories and pop stars. Its algorithm for indexing search results is based on popularity, not necessarily accuracy. The more links a Web page has, the higher its rank on Google. Type "apple" and expect to wade through dozens of results out of more than 28 million before arriving at a Web site even closely related to the fruit.

"That you found it on Google doesn't make it right," said Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra. He is concerned that Google is a ticket to procrastination, a vehicle for intellectual fakery, a forum for crackpots and conspiracy theorists.

He said "Google padding" is replacing true research in classrooms.

"In general, it overwhelms you with too much information, much of which is hopelessly unreliable or beside the point. It's like looking for a lost ring in a vacuum bag. What you end up with mostly are bagel crumbs and dirt," Botstein said.

It's probably safe to say that most people aren't using Google to stay abreast of the writings of Jacques Derrida. A link hidden on Google's jobs page charts nearly 600 different misspellings of "Britney Spears" detected by the spelling correction system. And no one needed the Google Zeitgeist page -- at Google.com/press/zeitgeist.html -- to know that Janet Jackson was the top emergent query for much of February.

But Google's own role in the zeitgeist is still indeterminable. Theoretically, at least, all that rampant Googling must be an improvement over mindless channel flipping and utter ignorance. Surely, the curiosity that brings one to a Google search must serve some higher cultural purpose.

In matters of creativity, there is no question that Google can transport users to unexpected places. While shooting a Jay-Z video at the Marcy public housing project in Brooklyn last month, the director Mark Romanek wondered who Marcy was. A quick Google search on his wireless laptop unearthed William Learned Marcy, a 19th-century governor of New York, which inspired Romanek to insert a portrait of Marcy into the video.

"I recently bought a larger computer screen," he said, "essentially so I can have Google open on one side and whatever script I'm writing on the other."

People on the dating scene are just as smitten.

Old lovers are reuniting via Google, and new ones are checking each other out.

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