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Search For Tomorrow

We Wanted Answers, And Google Really Clicked. What's Next?

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2004; Page D01

In the beginning -- before Google -- a darkness was upon the land.

We stumbled around in libraries. We lifted from the World Book Encyclopedia. We paged through the nearly microscopic listings in the heavy green volumes of the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. We latched onto hearsay and rumor and the thinly sourced mutterings of people alleged to be experts. We guessed. We conjectured. And then we gave up, consigning ourselves to ignorance.

When Google first appeared, in 1998, it seemed like a throwback. Rather than a jazzy "portal," it was just a plain ol' boring search engine. (Google)

_____Related Coverage_____
Online Search Engines Help Lift Cover of Privacy (The Washington Post, Feb 9, 2004)

Only now in the bright light of the Google Era do we see how dim and gloomy was our pregooglian world. In the distant future, historians will have a common term for the period prior to the appearance of Google: the Dark Ages.

There have been many fine Internet search engines over the years -- Yahoo!, AltaVista, Lycos, Infoseek, Ask Jeeves and so on -- but Google is the first to become a utility, a basic piece of societal infrastructure like the power grid, sewer lines and the Internet itself.

People keep finding new ways to use Google. It is now routine for the romantically savvy to Google a prospective date. "Google hackers" use the infiltrative powers of Google to pilfer bank records and Social Security numbers. The vain Google themselves.

It was about three years ago that the transitive verb "to Google" entered the lexicon, but it was only last year that Google passed all rival search engines in the number of queries handled -- now upwards of 200 million a day. So phenomenal is its success that some industry watchers think an initial public offering of Google stock could raise $20 billion and trigger a second dot-com boom.

"You build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door," Stewart Brand, computer guru and president of the Long Now Foundation, says of Google. "A wider path, I think, has never been beaten in the history of the world. It's an astonishing mousetrap story."

In the dot-com world, nothing stays the same for long, and it's not clear that Google will forever maintain its dominance over such ferocious rivals as Yahoo! and Microsoft. But the business story of Google is less interesting than the technological one: If information is power, then Google has helped change the world. Knowledge is measurably easier to obtain. Google works. Google knows.

The world used to be transformed by voyages of discovery, religious movements, epidemic globe-circling diseases, the whims of kings and the depredations of armies. But over the centuries, technology has emerged as the primary change agent, the thing that can shrink a planet, undermine dictators and turn 14-year-olds into publishers.

The question is, who's going to build the next mousetrap? What will it do? The laboratories of Internet companies are furiously trying to come up with the next generation of search engine. Whatever it is and whatever it's called, it will likely make the current Google searches seem as antiquated as cranking car engines by hand.

Mom, What's a Library?

The transition into the Google Era has not occurred without some anguish. The stacks of a university library can be a rather lonely place these days. Library circulation dropped about 20 percent at major universities in the first five years after Internet search engines became popular. For most students, Google is where all research begins (and, for the frat boys, ends).

A generation ago, reference librarians -- flesh-and-blood creatures -- were the most powerful search engines on the planet. But the rise of robotic search engines in the mid-1990s has removed the human mediators between researchers and information. Librarians are not so sure they approve. Much of the material on the World Wide Web is wrong, or crazy, or of questionable provenance, or simply out of date (odd to say this about a new technology, but the Web is full of stale information).

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