What if you had a magic tool that let you find out almost anything in less than a second? Millions of people already have it—and it’s changing the way we live. Sergey Brin and Larry Page began collaborating soon after they met as 22-year-old Stanford doctoral candidates in 1995
By Steven Levy
In a bygone era—say, five years ago—it would have been an occasion to burn shoe leather. A friend clued me in to an eBay item connected with a criminal case I was following. I didn’t know who the seller was, and the district attorney on the case didn’t know, either. “We’re looking into it,” he assured me.
I CHECKED INTO IT as well. Fifteen minutes later, I had not only the seller’s name, I’d discovered that he was a real-estate agent in a small California town. I’d seen a picture of him. I knew which community groups he belonged to, the title of a book he’d written. And what college he had attended. And I found out that the seller had a keen interest in hooking up with younger men—and I’d even read graphic descriptions of what he liked to do with them.
How did I know this? By performing an act done by tens of millions of people every day: typing a query (my quarry’s eBay handle, which was the same as his e-mail address) into a blank line on a sparsely decorated Web page. In about the time it takes to sneeze, and for a cost of, oh, zero, his particulars and proclivities were in my hands. And no shoe leather was expended.
Reader, I Googled him.
THE DESKTOP ORACLE OF DELPHI
Internet-search engines have been around for the better part of a decade, but with the emergence of Google, something profound has happened. Because of its seemingly uncanny ability to provide curious minds with the exact information they seek, a dot-com survivor has supercharged the entire category of search, transforming the masses into data-miners and becoming a cultural phenomenon in the process. By a winning combination of smart algorithms, hyperactive Web crawlers and 10,000 silicon-churning computer servers, Google has become a high-tech version of the Oracle of Delphi, positioning everyone a mouseclick away from the answers to the most arcane questions—and delivering simple answers so efficiently that the process becomes addictive. Google cofounder Sergey Brin puts it succinctly: “I’d like to get to a state where people think that if you’ve Googled something, you’ve researched it, and otherwise you haven’t and that’s it.” We’re almost there now. With virtually no marketing, Google is now the fourth most popular Web site in the world—and the Nos. 1 and 3 sites (AOL, Yahoo) both license Google technology for their Web searches. About half of all Web searches in the world are performed with —Google, which has been translated into 86 languages. The big reason for the success? It works. Not only does Google dramatically speed the process of finding things in the vast storehouse of the Web, but its power encourages people to make searches they previously wouldn’t have bothered with. Getting the skinny from Google is so common that the company name has become a verb. The usage has even been anointed by an instantly renowned New Yorker cartoon, where a barfly admits to a friend that “I can’t explain it—it’s just a funny feeling I’m being Googled.”
And when you’re Googled, it matters what the results are, since it’s the modern version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Yellow Pages and the Social Register, all rolled up in one.