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Peeling The Onion

September 17, 2009
by Quentin Hardy
art of internet servers

Like so many concepts, the idea of Internet search was born elsewhere but came of age here. Rightly so: Search’s holy grail of naming, sating, and sharing our every desire speaks to the core of life in California.

Pursuing and cataloguing the world’s information have a rich past, from Aristotle’s categories to Denis Diderot’s Encylopédie, an 18th-century celebration of reason that helped spawn the French Revolution.

Internet search is younger and faster-paced. Sixteen years ago, Canadian students gave us Archie, the first searchable database of Internet file names. A year later, text indexing came out of Minnesota, and two years after that the first true search engine of the World Wide Web hatched at MIT. The pioneers of Web search, founders of AltaVista and Inktomi, today work at Google and Berkeley. The corporate search leaders Google and Yahoo!, come from the same computer science building in Palo Alto.

The two giants differ in styles that might as well cleave the world. Yahoo!, the older of the two, began with personal taste. Stanford computer science grad students David Filo and Jerry Yang listed their favorite sites on the Web, offering a “cool site of the day” to what back then seemed like a manageable community of Web surfers. The two eventually broke their topics into categories and subcategories, for an immensely attractive way to find a growing number of things—and, not incidentally, advertise other things to their community of users. Pretty quickly, Yahoo! had a sprawling campus full of editors who scoured the Web and posted top picks. Some very smart software also was involved, but Yahoo! was known for the human touch, reflected in the many other products and services, such as email, freely available under its goofy and kinetic logo.

Google’s Stanford computer science grad students Larry Page and Sergey Brin always believed in the power of the machine. Some of that was necessity—in the four years between Yahoo!’s founding and Google’s, the Web had grown from 10,022 to 2.8 million sites, clearly beyond any human manageability (today there are perhaps 100 million sites, with uncounted billions of pages). Other search engines crawled and indexed this burgeoning mass, but Page and Brin’s added insight was to rank the relevance of Web pages in large part by how many other pages linked to them—in effect, mechanizing the value that millions of individuals writing on the Web held for other parts of the beast. The supercomputer had met the invisible hand of the market.

Google built its supercomputer with the cheapest possible parts, using open source software and thousands of gutted generic personal computers. It was literally held together with Velcro tape, and if something failed, it was just ripped loose and replaced, a casualty of the process. It is still like that, only now in dozens of data centers, the largest one as big as two football fields. But what users see is just a simple logo on a plain page, a sharp contrast to Yahoo!’s abundance.

Both companies today are multibillion- dollar enterprises, with all the expansion that comes to a corporation. But neither has left its roots: A large percentage of Google’s nearly 10,000 employees are engineers, some hired through a famously difficult and obscure process. One job posting consisted of a question on a billboard—what is the first 10-digit prime found in consecutive digits of e—if the correct answer was used as a Web address, another problem appeared. If this was answered correctly, a job application popped up. Eventually Yahoo! augmented its human-edited system with a computer- driven process that it continues to build out. It also is investing in so-called “social media,” where groups of ordinary people determine their own experiences by posting photographs, sharing notes on Web sites, or swapping music.

Even when one acts like the other, the bias is clear. Google executives say their toolkits for communication, such as an easy way to make blogs and searchable email, help grow out the Internet, improving Google’s search results by creating a bigger statistical sample. A Yahoo! executive has talked about the potential for (human-based) search to find a really great kiss. The two styles seem like the sort of ageless dichotomies—science/humanities, nature/nurture, form/content, ape/angel, L.A./San Francisco— that half the world loves.

Both are very attractive to advertisers, who pay for all this access to information. The search ads that Google dominates are direct: state your desires (in the form of search query terms) and whoever bought the rights to advertise based on those words gets to pitch a little text alongside your search results. You show weakness (a question) and Google gives you confidence (the answer)—it’s a classic selling moment. Yahoo! has been smart enough to start copying Google but also pitches itself as the home for brand advertising, that emotional representation of products that needs longer and deeper connection than Google’s quick hit.

Like all such splits before, the Yahoo!/Google difference resolves itself in the human. Both try to figure out what every individual wants, either by logging all of his or her interests, or by deriving the ideal geospatial algorithm for dissecting the query terms in a search box. Then each will assemble the Internet’s nearly infinite number of words, sounds, and images in a way that is precisely what that individual needs, at that precise moment (and offer the product best suited to that moment). The common goal turns the Internet (to which billions of us now turn) into billions of Internets, each one a tailored ideal to the person doing the searching.

It is, as they like to say at Google, a 300-year project. Unanswered in the project is how this ready access to deep knowledge may change us, and how the storage, communication, and collaboration tools Google and Yahoo! now offer for us to share information will change our politics, our memories, and our loves. Diderot did not set out to topple royalty. Gutenberg did not intend his printing press to eclipse the art of memory, in his day a pursuit in praise of God. With billions of Internets, we may each know a big chunk of everything at any given moment, all with no struggle. In the course of knowing things, the global chatter may be more shrill, and wisdom and insight scarcer than ever. As California always has demonstrated, paradise beguiles even as it disappoints us and changes us beyond recognition.

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