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

Sun, Mar 14, 2004 - Page 12

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.

"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 -- 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.

"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."