What's a Google? A Great Search Engine, That's What. WHY TECHNOLOGY STILL MATTERS
By David Kirkpatrick

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Few things on the Web appear more elementary than the naked home page of search site Google. It's just a sea of white space, a logo, eight tiny text blurbs, and a query box. But once you type in a description of what you're looking for and click, Google seems to exhibit inscrutable magic. More often than not, the first link listed gets you exactly where you want to go. And guess what? The nakedness is part of what makes this site fast.

In the opinion of this oft-frustrated Web surfer, Google is the first search engine that consistently works. After more than a year of testing, the company officially launched in late September. Its founders are Sergei Brin and Larry Page, two pudgy-faced 26-year-olds who, much as they hate to admit it, kind of look alike--and are downright Tweedledee and Tweedledum in their earnest eggheadedness. They came up with their idea at Stanford, as did Yahoo's Jerry Yang and David Filo. But unlike those two electrical engineering Ph.D. candidates, these guys were studying computer science. Like Yang and Filo, they've developed a flair for evangelizing. "We want to be the premier provider of search on the Web," says Page, the CEO. President Brin is less modest: "We're building a way to search human knowledge."

Such statements would seem brash, except that Google really works. On the day of a recent American League playoff game, I typed "New York Yankees 1999 playoffs" into both Google and Alta Vista. The first listing at Google took me directly to data about that night's game. The first two at Alta Vista linked to info about the 1998 World Series. Only at the third Alta Vista link, via yet an additional link, did I get to that day's game. Who wants to wade through irrelevant listings? "Google stands above its peers for general searches," says Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com (yes, there is a site that tracks search sites). "I continue to come away thinking, Wow, they're really good."

Google combines two Web technologies to achieve these results. First, it examines the words on a site and a number of related factors, such as where words sit on the page, their relative font sizes, section headings, and even the texts of pages that point to the page. All this determines whether a page is relevant to a query. But to figure out where to slot the page in the hierarchy of results, Google uses a technology Brin and Page invented (and for which they are seeking a patent) called V.C. PageRank. Explains Brin: "It's an equation that says a Web page is important if important pages point to it. If FORTUNE writes a story about a company and links to it from its home page, that company's page becomes more important by association."

Believers are congregating. Even before its launch, Google had grown in a year to two million page views per day, almost entirely by word of mouth. The founders claim that usage through August grew more than 50% a month. The bluest of blue-chip financiers have signed on: Both John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins and Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital are on Google's board. The two heavyweight venture-capital firms rarely back the same company.

Some industry skeptics say that the company lacks a way to convert all of its technology into profits. But its founders and VCs are sanguine. Google licenses its technology both for general Web searches--Netscape is its signature client so far--and for searches within a complex site, like that of Red Hat, the red-hot Linux firm. In addition, Google will soon start generating revenue on its home page with ads. But they won't be conventional banners. Instead, Google's ads will be all text, in part so that advertising that's relevant to a searcher's specific interest can pop up quickly. Says Moritz: "This is pure unadulterated, unequivocal search. Just as sites that specialize in finance, sports, women, or auctions have flourished, so will one or two sites that focus with manic passion on search."

It's heartening that a new spin on a relatively old Web function can still impress users five years into the medium's commercial history. It proves that technology--not just marketing--will still radically remake the Web.

--David Kirkpatrick