Photo: Mauricio Alejo
Want to know how Google is about to change your life? Stop by the Ouagadougou conference room on a Thursday morning. It is here, at the Mountain View, California, headquarters of the world’s most powerful Internet company, that a room filled with three dozen engineers, product managers, and executives figure out how to make their search engine even smarter. This year, Google will introduce 550 or so improvements to its fabled algorithm, and each will be determined at a gathering just like this one. The decisions made at the weekly Search Quality Launch Meeting will wind up affecting the results you get when you use Google’s search engine to look for anything — “Samsung SF-755p printer,” “Ed Hardy MySpace layouts,” or maybe even “capital Burkina Faso,” which just happens to share its name with this conference room. Udi Manber, Google’s head of search since 2006, leads the proceedings. One by one, potential modifications are introduced, along with the results of months of testing in various countries and multiple languages. A screen displays side-by-side results of sample queries before and after the change. Following one example — a search for “guitar center wah-wah” — Manber cries out, “I did that search!”
You might think that after a solid decade of search-market dominance, Google could relax. After all, it holds a commanding 65 percent market share and is still the only company whose name is synonymous with the verb search. But just as Google isn’t ready to rest on its laurels, its competitors aren’t ready to concede defeat. For years, the Silicon Valley monolith has used its mysterious, seemingly omniscient algorithm to, as its mission statement puts it, “organize the world’s information.” But over the past five years, a slew of companies have challenged Google’s central premise: that a single search engine, through technological wizardry and constant refinement, can satisfy any possible query. Facebook launched an early attack with its implication that some people would rather get information from their friends than from an anonymous formula. Twitter’s ability to parse its constant stream of updates introduced the concept of real-time search, a way of tapping into the latest chatter and conversation as it unfolds. Yelp helps people find restaurants, dry cleaners, and babysitters by crowdsourcing the ratings. None of these upstarts individually presents much of a threat, but together they hint at a wide-open, messier future of search — one that isn’t dominated by a single engine but rather incorporates a grab bag of services.
Still, the biggest threat to Google can be found 850 miles to the north: Bing. Microsoft’s revamped and rebranded search engine — with a name that evokes discovery, a famous crooner, or Tony Soprano’s strip joint — launched last June to surprisingly upbeat reviews. (The Wall Street Journal called it “more inviting than Google.”) The new look, along with a $100 million ad campaign, helped boost Microsoft’s share of the US search market from 8 percent to about 11 — a number that will more than double once regulators approve a deal to make Bing the search provider for Yahoo.
Team Bing has been focusing on unique instances where Google’s algorithms don’t always satisfy. For example, while Google does a great job of searching the public Web, it doesn’t have real-time access to the byzantine and constantly changing array of flight schedules and fares. So Microsoft purchased Farecast — a Web site that tracks airline fares over time and uses the data to predict when ticket prices will rise or fall — and incorporated its findings into Bing’s results. Microsoft made similar acquisitions in the health, reference, and shopping sectors, areas where it felt Google’s algorithm fell short.
Even the Bingers confess that, when it comes to the simple task of taking a search term and returning relevant results, Google is still miles ahead. But they also think that if they can come up with a few areas where Bing excels, people will get used to tapping a different search engine for some kinds of queries. “The algorithm is extremely important in search, but it’s not the only thing,” says Brian MacDonald, Microsoft’s VP of core search. “You buy a car for reasons beyond just the engine.”
Google’s response can be summed up in four words: mike siwek lawyer mi.
Amit Singhal types that koan into his company’s search box. Singhal, a gentle man in his forties, is a Google Fellow, an honorific bestowed upon him four years ago to reward his rewrite of the search engine in 2001. He jabs the Enter key. In a time span best measured in a hummingbird’s wing-flaps, a page of links appears. The top result connects to a listing for an attorney named Michael Siwek in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s a fairly innocuous search — the kind that Google’s servers handle billions of times a day — but it is deceptively complicated. Type those same words into Bing, for instance, and the first result is a page about the NFL draft that includes safety Lawyer Milloy. Several pages into the results, there’s no direct referral to Siwek.
The comparison demonstrates the power, even intelligence, of Google’s algorithm, honed over countless iterations. It possesses the seemingly magical ability to interpret searchers’ requests — no matter how awkward or misspelled. Google refers to that ability as search quality, and for years the company has closely guarded the process by which it delivers such accurate results. But now I am sitting with Singhal in the search giant’s Building 43, where the core search team works, because Google has offered to give me an unprecedented look at just how it attains search quality. The subtext is clear: You may think the algorithm is little more than an engine, but wait until you get under the hood and see what this baby can really do.