How "search" is redefining the Web — and our lives
Part 1: The hundreds of millions of Internet users who regularly click onto search engines — from Google to MSN Search — have fueled a burgeoning dot-com industry whose ripples are reaching every area of life.
Seattle Times technology reporter
After years selling another baker's pastries, Wendi Chocholak thought her birthday and wedding cakes were good enough for her to start her own business and succeed.
She was wrong. The people who tasted Chocholak's chocolate-raspberry and hazelnut mousse creations raved, but her Seattle business, Madeleine's European Cakes, didn't grow enough to pay her bills.
By last August, her dream was looking bleak, and so a friend suggested she try advertising on Google. Now, whenever someone searches there for Seattle wedding cake, they come across her ad. She pays a few cents each time someone clicks on it, and she gets four times the customer inquiries as before. It's enough to give Chocholak hope that her struggling company is going to make it.
When search engines can change the lives of pastry chefs, a technology transformation clearly is under way. These online guides were once merely the means to a destination, the robots that could quickly fetch a site from the Web haystack.
Now, they are the destination itself, and crucial to fulfilling a basic human need — the quest for information. For many, they have become the first stop in a discovery, the jumping-off point for an increasing number of tasks — such as finding a decent wedding cake in Seattle.
"We have invited them into our lives," said Danny Sullivan, founder of the Search Engine Watch site. "Originally, we turned to them just to locate stuff on the Web. We continue to do that, but they're going through a metamorphosis into being our trusted guide to everything."
Search: The engine for change
We have invited search into our lives, and search engine companies have responded by giving us more of what we want — and taking some information in return.
Microsoft's MSN division went from zero to search engine in less than two years — a remarkable achievement. The division did it in typical Microsoft fashion, devoting enormous resources and effort to catch up. The engine still hasn't beaten Google, though. Will it ever?
The Puget Sound has been involved in search development since nearly the beginning. A look at the work being done in search by local people and companies.
Three quarters of U.S. Internet users, or about 120 million people, have used engines, searching an average of 38 times a month. As the technology has taken off, its influence has rippled through other industries.
The online Yellow Pages business is growing each year, while sales in the printed directories have flattened. At the same time, search technology has revolutionized advertising to the point where the businesses are questioning the value of print newspaper ads or television commercials.
Search also has an impact at a personal level. Nosa Omoigui quit his job as a Microsoft researcher to build a search engine for medical researchers. At chef Tom Douglas' radio show, Google searches help the production staff build entire shows around such topics as Hawaiian vanilla and Chinese New Year food. A Web log that Seattle structural engineer Matthew Powell started about the San Antonio Spurs basketball team got an audience of hundreds after being included in Yahoo's search results.
As a business, search brought in $4 billion in sales last year, and will become a bigger cash cow as its power and influence grows. And in the process, the easy reach of so much information will continue to provoke concerns about privacy and security.
Search companies are building precise profiles of users in order to sell ads. They know what city you live in, what you search for, the sites you click on and some of the other things you do online.
They know what people want to read about and the places they want to go. They're getting an unprecedented look at the collective wants and needs of the online population and they see trends long before nearly everyone else.
They own a growing archive of the human race.
Second only to e-mailThe idea of Web searching has been around for as long as the Internet itself, but only in the past several years did it catch on with the mainstream. Now, it is the second most popular activity online, after e-mail.
Some search for answers to their health problems, or for advice on running a small business. Others find driving directions, track the whereabouts of former lovers or get help translating foreign languages.
And with the high-speed Internet connections in most offices and nearly 40 percent of online U.S. households, these searches take just a fraction of a second.
If only searching were that easy. In developing its own search engine, Microsoft found that people search an average of 11 minutes before they find what they are looking for. See how long it takes to find the top five university marine-biology programs, or the store with the cheapest tires in Seattle. You searched for java, but did you mean coffee, the island or the programming language?
That's the tough stuff. Search-engine companies are scrambling to figure out how to find better answers to questions and combine searching with new technologies. Experts say we'll look back years from now and chuckle at our half-baked methods of finding information.
Search is just beginning.
Conceived 15 years agoThe first search engine was created in 1990 by a college student in Montreal and named "Archie" — a variation on the word archive. There wasn't even much of a Web at that point, and Archie was mainly used to dig through public file-exchange sites.
Three years later, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a program to measure the size of the new World Wide Web by exploring its nooks and crannies, crawling from document to document and cataloging its findings. That technique is still used today, as search-engine software robots constantly crawl the Web to find sites.
The technology picked up steam at universities. A group of Stanford students in late 1993 started working on what would become the Excite Web directory. Two others soon would launch a Web site called Yahoo!
Up to this point, search engines were tracking only chunks of a Web site. To be truly effective, these engines had to be able to search all the text on an entire page. That next generation of search engines was born in 1994 at the University of Washington, and Puget Sound has remained a powerhouse of search development since then.
Brian Pinkerton, a UW computer-science student, created in his spare time a simple program called WebCrawler to search for information on the Web. The program went live in April 1994, and became so popular that the UW's computer system sometimes slowed from the traffic. By November, it had received its 1 millionth query, a slightly alarming request for nuclear weapons design and research. It was snapped up a year later by America Online.
Search engines were popping up all over the Internet by the mid-1990s, but the technology industry mostly had no clue about how to make money on this phenomenon.
Bill Gross did. An Internet visionary and the creator of technology incubator Idealab, Gross founded a search-engine company called GoTo on the idea that advertisers would pay to list their sites in search-engine results.
Gross' idea was openly mocked in the technology industry. "Was he out of his mind?" asked a 1998 article about Gross in Red Herring magazine. "Who needed another search engine?"
As it turned out, the advertising model was worth more than the engine. GoTo went on to become Overture Services, and in 2001, as companies toppled like dominoes in the dot-com crash, Overture posted a profit and sales soared.
Search as a business was born. (Yahoo, by the way, bought Overture for $1.6 billion in 2003.)
"Suddenly search went from this checkbox feature you had to have to actually being the cash source for the center of your site," said Rich Skrenta, a former director of Netscape Communications' search business and the founder of Bay Area online news service Topix.net. "Today, the model [Gross] invented is basically the engine behind Google's billion-dollar quarter."
Clean, simple, invitingGoogle, based in Mountain View, Calif., hit the $1 billion quarterly sales mark in 2004, just five years after its official launch. Its search engine won fans immediately upon debut because it served up relevant results in fractions of a second and had the minimalist appeal of white hotel sheets — clean, simple and inviting. Google's vault into the spotlight was perfectly timed to two important events: Mainstream users began discovering search, and competitors, distracted by the dot-com bust, lost their focus on quality.
Other search engines stopped improving their results, and the blinking and sparkling banner ads on their Web sites screamed for too much attention. Google produced answers fast, showing some unobtrusive ads along the way. That wasn't a bad tradeoff for users.
"We were finding things before Google came along, but they definitely raised the bar and raised the expectations of what we could get out of search," said Sullivan at Search Engine Watch. "They made it more manageable."
Google is the most popular engine today, home to 35 percent of Web searches. It receives hundreds of millions of requests every day, and studies them so thoroughly that it puts out a regular update of user patterns. Popular queries last week included Earth Day, new pope and the NFL draft.
Google did its part to popularize Web search — becoming a powerful brand name in the process — but it was the high-speed Internet that helped turn searching into one of the hottest areas in technology today. With a fast connection, the search engine is always there, ready to ask the question Microsoft once used in television commercials: "Where do you want to go today?"
If we increasingly live in an "always on" world, and if our every task starts with a question, then every task could start with search, said Mark Anderson, a Friday Harbor technology forecaster. Search moves to the front of how we think and work, he said, and its impact becomes staggering.
"Huge," he said. "That's where the big money is. The number of eyeballs goes up hugely, and all the money comes from eyeballs."
Search engines are going after more eyeballs by adding their own content, and now offer users street maps, phone numbers, weather forecasts and even answers to algebra problems. Many also offer separate search-based shopping and news services.
Google is digitizing books from five library systems, and now lets users search through "Pride and Prejudice," "War and Peace" and other books. Microsoft's MSN division has added its Encarta Encyclopedia to its search engine, so that it can give a fact-based answer to questions like "Where do aardvarks live?" and "What is dew?"
And Web users add more public information daily. A group of University of California researchers estimated the size of the public Web at least tripled from 2000 to 2003, when it contained 167 terabytes of data. That's equal to about 560,000 sets of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Others learning about usA Web that size is bound to capture some details some people don't want online. Credit-card numbers, phone numbers and addresses have turned up in search results. A Seattle man's spicy online personal ads from 1996 are easy to find nine years later.
Expect more of the same as the Web grows and as search-engine companies branch into new business areas. They're learning more daily about the things we buy, the topics we discuss over e-mail and the friends in our inner circle.
Amazon.com, a company that already keeps vast records of consumer searches and purchases, launched its A9.com search engine last year. It could easily start advertising based on customers' A9 searches, but it said it won't cross that line.
There are no plans to tie a person's search history on A9 to Amazon's retail side, said Udi Manber, A9's chief executive.
"A9.com makes information from users available only to them," he said.
Still, the distinction between searching and other online businesses is growing increasingly blurry. Amazon and the major search-engine companies own at least one of the following:
• Social networking sites, such as Google's Orkut, where people meet each other and discuss their goals and interests.
• E-mail and online blogging programs, such as MSN's Spaces, where people keep online diaries, photos and links to favorite songs.
• Instant messaging applications, such as MSN Messenger, in which users chat with others on their contact lists.
• Digital photo services, such as Yahoo's Flickr, which allows users to organize their photos and share them with others.
"One disturbing aspect is that these profiles are being built up," said Jason Catlett, the founder of New Jersey-based privacy-protection company Junkbusters. "If the average person was confronted with a history of his search queries and surfing records, they would be horrified and say, 'I want this destroyed.' "
Google began testing a program last month that will show users their past searches. The program, called My Search History, shows a user's search queries, the date and time of the queries and the results that were clicked on. Google shares that information among all of its services.
Can we trust search engines with so much information, with knowing so much about us?
"I don't know," said Sullivan at Search Engine Watch. "I think that's what we're all going to be discovering now."
Next stop: the cellphoneSo where does search go from here? Some experts say the technology will jump digital boundaries from the browser to other platforms. Its next stop is the cellphone; in the future, television.
Search will play a huge role in cellphones and mobile devices, said Jim Voelker, chief executive of InfoSpace, the Bellevue company that is launching a mobile search engine this year.
"It's going to become very easy to get any kind of information and data you want where you want it," he said. "The device increasingly knows where you are and what you like to do when you're there."
John Battelle, a co-founder of Wired magazine whose book on the search industry is due out Sept. 12, said he expects that search and TV eventually will merge. The things you search for, the Web sites you visit and the history of programs you watch could influence which ads come over your TV.
"There is just this boatload of data about what people want sitting on search engines and [Internet service providers]," he said. Television companies are willing to spend huge sums to find out what people want, and the two industries could combine resources very quickly.
Google began moving video into its vast grid last month. The company accepts video uploads from users, and plans to eventually allow people to view, search and buy them. Google is encouraging television producers to upload as well.
In other words, search is becoming a media business. That much was obvious in March, when Microsoft unveiled an ad-selling platform for Internet-delivered TV. The technology would show ads precisely directed at the people watching them.
That same month, the Ask Jeeves search engine found a suitor in none other than IAC/InterActiveCorp, which owns the Home Shopping Network, Ticketmaster, Expedia and the Citysearch portal.
In a conference call announcing the $1.85 billion deal, IAC Chairman Barry Diller said his company would create an "echo system" to send Web traffic back and forth between Ask Jeeves and all of IAC's other properties.
"We began to be convinced, like most everybody else, that search, global search, is the gateway to everything," he said. "As far as I can see, there is no impediment to its growth."
Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or firstname.lastname@example.org