Published Jan 1, 2007 8:00 AM

03. Search Party: Google and Yahoo!

By Quentin Hardy

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

Sixteen years ago, a Canadian student gave us Archie, the first searchable database of Internet file names. A year later, text indexing came out of Minnesota, and two years later 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 UC Berkeley. The corporate search leaders, Google and Yahoo!, come from the same computer science building in Palo Alto.

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, to 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. Yahoo! was known for the human touch, reflected in the many other products and services, such as e-mail, freely available under its goofy and kinetic purple logo.

Google's Stanford computer science grad students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, 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 management (today there are an estimated 100 million sites). Other search engines crawled and indexed this burgeoning mass, but Page and Brin's 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.

Both companies today are multibillion-dollar enterprises, 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.

Yahoo! eventually augmented its human-edited system with a computer-driven process that it continues to build out. But it also is investing in so-called "social media," where groups of ordinary people determine their own outcomes 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 e-mail, 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 search technology to aid audio and video searches to discover the best movie scene kisses.

The two styles seem like ageless dichotomies — science/humanities, nature/nurture, L.A./San Francisco. Both, however, are very attractive to advertisers, the force that pays 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. It's retail marketing, an electronic Yellow Pages. Yahoo! has been smart enough to start copycatting 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.

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.

Yet unanswered is how the storage, communication and collaboration tools Google and Yahoo! offer for us to share information will change us. With 6 billion 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 shriller, wisdom and insight scarcer than ever. As California always has demonstrated, paradise beguiles even as it disappoints us and changes us beyond recognition.