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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

"By the time someone asks you for dinner," said Rael Dornfest, an author of Google Hacks, a 300-page manual for advanced Googling, "you can easily know a big chunk of that person's life story."

In January, a New York City woman ran a suitor's name through the search engine only to learn that he was wanted for fraud by the FBI. A few clicks later, the man was apprehended at an Applebee's restaurant on Long Island.

"Google makes it harder than ever to escape the past," said Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor and a leading thinker on the Internet and the law. "If you went to a state school before you enrolled at Harvard Business School or if your sexual orientation is something you kept private but someone discussed it on a blog, those facts are now in the permanent record."

The bigger burden may be on Google itself and on beefing up the content and organization of the information it presents. "The terrifying and wonderful observation about Google is that people these days are using it as an information resource of first resort," said Brewster Kahle, chairman of the Internet Archive, which is preserving hundreds of millions of Web pages for their historical value. "Unfortunately, many of them also believe if something's not on Google, it doesn't exist."

Google's new headquarters in a quiet corporate park in Mountain View, California, is what graduate school would be like if all the students were rich. The 500,000-square-foot center, known as the Googleplex, is an unflagging emblem of Silicon Valley's vaunted geek-chic aesthetic. A volleyball court is outside. Doodle surfaces are the size of billboards. Puppies waddle in and out of conference rooms.

The Grateful Dead's former caterer dishes out free lunches and dinners of seitan veggie kebabs and Chateaubriand.

The company was founded in a Stanford University dorm in 1998 by two doctoral students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and later moved to a Palo Alto garage. Its initial offer of public shares, feverishly anticipated by investors, is expected soon.

"Search was underappreciated for so long, but people now recognize all Web searches aren't alike," Brin said.

This month Forbes magazine added him and his partner, both in their early 30s, to the list of the world's richest people.

Joseph Janes asked the students in his Google seminar to observe themselves searching.

"I wanted to know if life is more satisfying in a Google universe," he said. "Most of them decided it's pretty helpful most of the time. Yes, you can find sites that tell you Texas was never a state or that the cure for Hodgkin's disease is to drink bat guano, but if you want to know the capital of Bolivia, go to Google, and out it will come."

For its part, Google does not claim to be the last word on anything. "Does it change the world?" asked Craig Silverstein, Google's director of technology and its first employee. "Not necessarily. But we think Google makes conversations richer and more fruitful. With it, you improve the quality of discourse. Or at least have bar arguments that are more well-informed."

Susan Wojcicki, whose garage sheltered Google in its early days and who is now director of product placement, says the simple pleasures are what keep Googlers Googling. "I was able to figure out what my ex-boyfriend's wife looks like," she said. "That was really satisfying."

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