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All Eyes on Google

In six short years, two Stanford grad students turned a simple idea into a multibillion-dollar phenomenon and changed our lives. Now competitors are searching for a way to dethrone the latest princes of the Net
Nerve center: Google's Mountain View, Calif. server helps perform 200 million searches of 6 billion web pages a day
Nerve center: Google's Mountain View, Calif. server helps perform 200 million searches of 6 billion web pages a dayTimothy Archibald for Newsweek
/ Source: Newsweek

Short of "you're under arrest," there are very few things that the leaders of a young technology company would like less to hear than "Bill Gates thinks you've kicked his butt and now he wants your business." But Sergey Brin and Larry Page don't seem ruffled at all. Hanging out one day in their spacious new headquarters, the two young cofounders of Google are calm, even confident, in the face of a rising tide of competitors, technology challenges and the tricky process of using the principles of disorganization to build a substantial company out of one unquestionably brilliant idea.

Let's face it—it's good to be Google. Every minute, worldwide, in 90 languages, the index of this Internet-based search engine created by these Stanford doctoral dropouts is probed more than 138,000 times. In the course of a day, that's over 200 million searches of 6 billion Web pages, images and discussion-group postings. Searches for golf clubs, song lyrics, tomorrow night's blind date, recipes and the unaltered screen shots of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl boo-boo. Amazingly, the majority of those queries evoke satisfactory, even revelatory, results. Google has changed the way the world finds things out, and enticed it to look for things previously considered unfindable.

Not only has Google very famously become a verb, but Silicon Valley is holding its collective breath for the seemingly inevitable IPO, when Google will become a synonym for another word: wealthy. Still, even without a market cap, the two Google guys recently made the Forbes billionaire list.

Here they are, outlining their plans for getting all the world's information on their thousands of servers and delivering it to anyone who can peck a query into a search field. Brin, 30, the ruminative Russian-born son of a math professor who is Google's business visionary, won't sit down: he's bothered by a mild injury incurred by his hobby of gymnastics. As Brin stretches, 31-year-old Page, the guardian of Google's secret-sauce search techniques, tells a story.

"I was researching big computer networks the other day, networks," he says. "I put this really strange query into Google, and got this research paper with the exact things I wanted. Which would have been a many-hour process normally. It took all of 30 seconds. I gave it to a bunch of people in the company, and now we have this project. It's very likely that I wouldn't have done that at all if it had been more difficult. I think the value of that can be very large, making the world more efficient."

Exactly. Google has made such eureka moments as common as sneezing. Who hasn't had such a revelation on Google, whether the discovery was an old girlfriend's whereabouts or a cutting-edge treatment for a rare disease? Amazing to consider that less than a decade ago, search was a backwater, deemed not very interesting and certainly not very profitable. Instead, Internet companies put their energy into developing feature-laden "portals." Then came Larry and Sergey, and search became the center of the Internet universe. "Search is the ultimate killer online app," says Bob Davis, former CEO of Lycos. "The Internet without search is like a cruise missile without a guidance system."

The rest of the industry has noticed. Boy, has it noticed. To quote the numbers, Safa Rashtchy at Piper Jaffray reports that annual search revenues are just under $4 billion today (about a billion of that is Google's) and will almost triple over the next four years. But those figures don't reflect search's real impact; those empty query fields on search pages are the front doors to the Internet. If you're not indexed by Google, you pretty much don't exist. And if you're a business with a high page rank—a key metric that determines whether your site will be displayed high in the results for a given query, or buried a few hundred mouseclicks back—you can count on a thriving online trade. A horde of new companies has arisen whose services focus on performing all the tweaks and playing all the tricks that supposedly get your Web site listed higher on Google's results pages. (Google constantly fine-tunes its system to frustrate such manipulating.) If you can't afford to hire one of those firms, buy the latest offering in a famous series: "Search Engine Optimization for Dummies."

So it's no surprise that all the companies that missed out the first time around are now gearing up for the Search Wars, a clash that will be waged with algorithms, measured by terabytes and scored by click-throughs. Gunning for Google are Internet giants, clever new start-ups and an 800-pound gorilla in Redmond, Wash. They might not have gotten it at first, but now it seems terribly obvious. "Search has always been essential to people's lives," says Jeff Weiner of Yahoo. "We're all trying to seek happiness—a new car, a job, a spouse ... it's how we live."

What does Brin think of the gathering forces? He ... stretches. "I've seen companies obsessed with competition, say, with Microsoft, that keep looking in their rearview mirror and crash into a tree head-on because they're so distracted," he says. "If I had one magic bullet, I wouldn't spend it on a competitor, I'd spend it to make sure we're executing as well as we possibly can. I think we're doing a pretty good job."

The folks at Yahoo can't disagree. Just over a year ago those at the archetypical Internet portal realized that while the world was bowing before the altar of search, their company was little more than an overtaxed Web directory and two pieces of paper licensing other people's search technology (including you know whose). People didn't Yahoo anybody—they Googled. And for the folks at Yahoo, that could not stand.