The first director of the great library of Alexandria was a very smart man, and we all owe him a big debt of gratitude. When he showed up for work on his first day--that was around 300 B.C.--he realized he had 500,000 papyrus scrolls and no way to organize them. He had stumbled on an important truth: You can have more information at your fingertips than any other human being in history, but it won't do you much good if you can't find the piece you want. He solved the problem by ordering the scrolls alphabetically, a principle that survives to this day. Too bad his name was Zenodotus.
Today we're all Zenodotuses. Each of us has access to more data than anybody has ever had before, but still the trick is to find what we want when we want it. Given the size of the Internet--estimates run around 500 billion documents and counting--that's no easy task. Internet surfers do about 550 million Web searches a day. Amass that many people anywhere doing anything and somebody is going to try to sell them something. The market for advertising to those Web searchers is worth about $2 billion, and it's growing at a rate of 35% a year--far outpacing any other advertising medium. What's more, Google, the reigning sultan of search, is looking vulnerable. The combination of big money and big opportunity has attracted some mighty big players, including Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon. There's a street fight brewing over Internet search that will make the browser wars look like thumb wrestling.
But for a minute forget about the big numbers, the millions of customers and the billions of dollars. Think about what's at stake culturally and socially in the search wars, and all those zeros start looking pretty paltry by comparison. The Internet is swiftly becoming the primary repository of the bulk of human information. Search is the way we get at that information, and companies like Google wield enormous power. They reflect our common interests and shape how we learn about the world with their rapid-fire search results. This isn't just about dotcom juggernauts duking it out for stock options and bragging rights. Whoever wins the search wars owns the keys to the kingdom of knowledge. That's a big responsibility. Are search engines up to it?
It's kind of surprising to think that for most of the 1990s, very large corporations fought for the privilege of helping us search the Web. After all, there was no money in it, at least not directly--searching is free. Everybody assumed that one day somebody would figure out a way to reap dollars from it. But what's even more surprising is that the first round of the search wars was won by two twentysomething Stanford graduate students named Sergey Brin and Larry Page. In 1998 Brin and Page invented a new kind of search engine, one that assessed the importance of a Web page based not on a simple keyword search but on how many and what kinds of websites link to that Web page. Their approach delivered search results that creamed the competition's, and it served them up in a simple, quick-loading, no-frills format. It was a stone-cold category killer. Brin and Page called their search engine Google. "It was fun, it was short, it was reasonably easy to spell," Page remembers. "We like doing big things, and googol [the mathematical term for a 1 followed by 100 zeros] is a huge number."