By SAUL HANSELL
The New York Times
June 3, 2007
Mountain View, Calif.
THESE days, Google seems to be doing everything, everywhere. It takes
pictures of your house from outer space, copies rare Sanskrit books in
India, charms its way onto Madison Avenue, picks fights with Hollywood
and tries to undercut Microsoft's software dominance.
But at its core, Google remains a search engine. And its search pages,
blue hyperlinks set against a bland, white background, have made it
the most visited, most profitable and arguably the most powerful
company on the Internet. Google is the homework helper, navigator and
yellow pages for half a billion users, able to find the most
improbable needles in the world's largest haystack of information in
just the blink of an eye.
Yet however easy it is to wax poetic about the modern-day miracle of
Google, the site is also among the world's biggest teases. Millions of
times a day, users click away from Google, disappointed that they
couldn't find the hotel, the recipe or the background of that hot
guy. Google often finds what users want, but it doesn't always.
That's why Amit Singhal and hundreds of other Google engineers are
constantly tweaking the company's search engine in an elusive quest to
close the gap between often and always.
Mr. Singhal is the master of what Google calls its "ranking algorithm"
-- the formulas that decide which Web pages best answer each user's
question. It is a crucial part of Google's inner sanctum, a department
called "search quality" that the company treats like a state
secret. Google rarely allows outsiders to visit the unit, and it has
been cautious about allowing Mr. Singhal to speak with the news media
about the magical, mathematical brew inside the millions of black
boxes that power its search engine.
Google values Mr. Singhal and his team so highly for the most basic of
competitive reasons. It believes that its ability to decrease the
number of times it leaves searchers disappointed is crucial to fending
off ever fiercer attacks from the likes of Yahoo and Microsoft and
preserving the tidy advertising gold mine that search represents.