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Google engineers try to read users' minds

Millions of times a day, users click away from Google, disappointed that they couldn't find exactly what they were looking for. And this is where a secretive section of the company's inner sanctum comes in

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA

Google engineer Matt Cutts, left, battles colleague Jianfei Zhu in Building 43 in Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California, on Wednesday. The building houses the top engineers working on Google's mathematical formulas for deciding which Web pages best answer each user's question.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

These days, Google seems to be doing everything, everywhere. It takes pictures of your house from outer space, copies rare Sanskrit books in India, charms its way onto Madison Avenue, picks fights with Hollywood and tries to undercut Microsoft's software dominance.

But at its core, Google remains a search engine. And its search pages, blue hyperlinks set against a bland, white background, have made it the most visited, most profitable and arguably the most powerful company on the Internet. Google is the homework helper, navigator and yellow pages for half a billion users, able to find the most improbable needles in the world's largest haystack of information in just the blink of an eye.

Yet however easy it is to wax poetic about the modern-day miracle of Google, the site is also among the world's biggest teases. Millions of times a day, users click away from Google, disappointed that they couldn't find the hotel, the recipe or the background of that hot guy. Google often finds what users want, but it doesn't always.

That's why Amit Singhal and hundreds of other Google engineers are constantly tweaking the company's search engine in an elusive quest to close the gap between often and always.

Singhal is the master of what Google calls its "ranking algorithm" -- the formulas that decide which Web pages best answer each user's question. It is a key part of Google's inner sanctum, a department called "search quality" that the company treats like a state secret. Google rarely allows outsiders to visit the unit, and it has been cautious about allowing Singhal to speak with the news media about the magical, mathematical brew inside the millions of black boxes that power its search engine.

Google values Singhal and his team so highly for the most basic of competitive reasons. It believes that its ability to decrease the number of times it leaves searchers disappointed is crucial to fending off ever-fiercer attacks from the likes of Yahoo and Microsoft and preserving the tidy advertising gold mine that search represents.

"The fundamental value created by Google is the ranking," says John Battelle, the chief executive of Federated Media, a blog ad network, and author of The Search, a book about Google.

Online stores, he notes, find that a quarter to a half of their visitors, and most of their new customers, come from search engines. And media sites are discovering that many people are ignoring their home pages -- where ad rates are typically highest -- and using Google to jump to the specific pages they want.

"Google has become the life blood of the Internet," Battelle says. "You have to be in it."

Users, of course, don't see the science and the artistry that makes Google's black boxes hum, but the search-quality team makes about a half-dozen major and minor changes a week to the vast nest of mathematical formulas that power the search engine.

These formulas have grown better at reading the minds of users to interpret a very short query. Are the users looking for a job, a purchase, or a fact? The formulas can tell that people who type "apples" are likely to be thinking about fruit, while those who type "Apple" are mulling computers or iPods. They can even compensate for vaguely worded queries or outright mistakes.

`Give me what I want'

"Search over the last few years has moved from `Give me what I typed' to `Give me what I want,'" says Singhal, a 39-year-old native of India who joined Google in 2000 and is now a Google Fellow, the designation the company reserves for its elite engineers.

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