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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 March, 2004, 08:47 GMT 09:47 UK
Google looks to see off rivals
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor

For a man with rivals snapping at his heels, Google's technology boss Craig Silverstein comes across as rather relaxed.

Google logo
Research labs worldwide are working to dethrone Google
The master and commander of the world of search is facing a barrage of contenders seeking to take over the throne.

Mr Silverstein is aware that Google could lose the top spot at any moment, but remains convinced that its way of handling the mass of information on the web is best, at least for now.

"We're dependent on coming up with the right ideas," said Mr Silverstein. "If you rest on your laurels, you will be toppled."

For the moment, Google is riding high.

Last year, it accounted for more than 70% of all searches in the US. And it was named as the top brand of 2003, beating Apple into second place.

But the history of the internet is littered with search engines which once dominated the net.

Just a few years ago, AltaVista had been the search tool of choice. Before that it was Inktomi and even earlier it had been Yahoo.

"We've looked at how easy it is for people to switch from Google to another search engine," Mr Silverstein told BBC News Online.

"The conclusion we draw from it is that we have to stay on our toes. Switching is ridiculously easy to do and search is so important to people, they will switch if it makes their life easier."

In its attempts to stay ahead of the competition, it has just revamped its web page and announced that it is trying out a system that allows people to enter personal information so that the search engine might deliver more relevant results.

Top dog

Mr Silverstein was at Stanford University with Google's founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

As the company's first employee, he helped transform an idea from a research project into a reality.

Google has established itself at the top of the search pile by finding what web browsers want faster and more accurately than others.

Google's Craig Silverstein
The right way to search is to do what a person would do, that is the ideal we are going for. The problem is that we have no idea how to get there
Craig Silverstein, Google
The secret of its success lies in the page-ranking system it uses to analyse the web. At a basic level, this judges the relevance of a page by counting how many other pages link to it.

"A rank list is not the most natural way to find information," admitted Mr Silverstein. "We think about that a lot but we're not convinced the alternatives are better.

"The idea of ranking a page is always going to be important."

Despite its critics, the page-ranking technique has proved remarkably popular with surfers and has turned Google into a verb, as well as a very profitable business.

The subject-related paid ads that appear alongside search results contributed an estimated $2bn in revenues to the advertising industry.

Money-spinner

Analysts reckon that by 2007, this sort of advertising will be worth some $7bn.

No wonder that labs worldwide are trying to come up with the next generation of search engine, among them big players in the technology industry such as Microsoft and Yahoo.

Computer mouse in use
Google looks to innovation to keep people clicking
Just recently, Microsoft's chief executive Steve Ballmer conceded that the software giant had made a strategic mistake by not investing in its own search technology.

It is now trying to make up for lost time by pouring resources into coming up with what Mr Ballmer described as "absolutely the best".

Many suspect that Microsoft wants to incorporate search into its next desktop operating system, code-named Longhorn.

The idea would be to create a single search box that with one click would be the gateway to all the information you need, be it in your computer or on the web.

Mr Silverstein shied away talking specifically about whether Google was working on a single search bar for the desktop, but it is clearly something it is looking at.

"What I can say is that kind of research is consistent with what Google is about and trying to do," he said.

Search upstarts

But Google has more than just the mammoth Microsoft to worry about. A host of smaller operations are snapping at its heels with their take on how to make finding what you want on the web easier.

One called Teoma ranks results according to their standing among recognised authorities on the subject.

By comparison, an Australian upstart called Mooter tries to provide better results by understanding the behaviour of its users.

Surprising perhaps, Mr Silverstein seemed to embrace the work of others looking at novel ways of pulling information from the web.

"We're excited about that," he said. "In the future, it will not just be about gathering a list of web pages."

Mr Silverstein is aware that search technology is really very much in its infancy. This is good news for him, he said with a smile, as he can be confident of being in a job for years to come.

"The right way to search is to do what a person would do," he said, "that is the ideal we are going for.

"The problem is that we have no idea how to get there."




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