четверг, 19 июня 2008 г.

Google is the hottest private company in Silicon Valley part 2

By June 1999, Brin and Page had attracted more than $25 million from two legendary venture capitalists, John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital.

The founders resisted when pushed by those backers to hire a chief executive, taking a year to agree on a choice. Eric Schmidt, the former Novell CEO and onetime Sun Microsystems executive, joined Google in August 2001.

The search dragged on so long that Moritz threatened to pull his money. "I felt I grew tusks," he mused.

Although they have given up a sizable stake in the company to venture capitalists, the eccentric founding pair are Google's cultural soul and, along with Schmidt, run the company.

Page is the more cerebral of the two, the big thinker who also worries about whether his engineers will like their new digs. Brin, insiders say, has more business instinct, is the negotiator and has a sharp sense of humor that usually involves poking fun at his co-founder.

"Of the two of us, Larry will always take the extreme position," Brin said. When the subject of free employee lunches came up, Page proposed a plan to feed the world. They compromised on free staff lunches and dinners. Recent menus included endive and pear salad with pomegranate molasses dressing and pork loin in mustard veal reduction sauce, prepared by an award-winning former chef to the Grateful Dead.

Google headquarters, known as the Googleplex, is a throwback to the late 1990s. In the lobby, decorated with lava lamps and giant plastic balls, an engineer takes a break to play a baby grand piano. A pool table is nearby, and Brin and Page zip around on their new Segway scooters.

Benefits include company-paid, midweek ski trips to Squaw Valley and maternity and paternity leaves with 75 percent pay.

The freewheeling culture can lead to some pie-in-the-sky ideas: Over a January dinner at venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson's home, Page and Brin became excited about the idea of rearranging atoms into super-tiny computers and exclaimed they could create a nanotech lab at Google. (The company says there are now no such plans.)

"It is like Netscape in the early years-kids sleeping on the cots, the dogs are in there, they've stacked up the beer cans," said Doerr.

But Google has a discipline, albeit unconventional. Engineers-including more than 60 with doctorates-work in committees of three to develop new projects. The trio with the most ambitious but plausible idea gets the most backing.

As Page explained: "You'll get more resources within the company, you get people more excited, you get people outside writing about it."

While they dream, Brin and Page also keep their eyes on the details: They use software to tally, to the second, how much money the firm is raking in.

They said the free, healthy meals only came about after calculating the time saved from driving off-site and reduced health care costs. There's even a Webcam trained on the cafeteria lunch line, so employees can avoid a long wait.

While most of the tech world buzzes about an IPO, Google's founders hold firm to their technological ambitions-building, in Page's words, "the ultimate search engine."

"It would understand exactly what you type and would give you the right things back," said Page. "We're pretty good, but we're nowhere close to being perfect. We won't be for a long time."

Google is the hottest private company in Silicon Valley

Around the globe, Google has become a synonym for searching the Internet, as in let's "Google" that.

In Silicon Valley, the Mountain View, Calif., company is the hottest private company around, with a good shot at becoming a business legend like Netscape, Apple or eBay.

Founded by a pair of Stanford graduate students in 1998, Google reinvented online searching. Today, the company says it handles200 million searches a day and, according to some estimates, about 75 percent of all search-engine-generated traffic to Web sites.

The site makes it possible to search instantly for virtually anything on the Web. Google is an encyclopedia, phone book, shopping catalog, news archive and gossip sheet rolled into one.

"Google has made knowledge a habit," said Barbara Quint, a librarian and editor of Search Magazine.

The company is also a rare reminder that there is financial promise in the Internet. Google, with 800 employees and growing fast, won't disclose its finances. But speculation within the industry is that Google will ring up $400 million to $700 million in sales this year, most of it from using technology to target relevant ads to Web users. The company says it has been making money since December 2000.

Yet profits alone don't seem to be enough for Google's two ambitious young founders. Their ethos of thinking big evokes other celebrated valley companies that tried to change the world through technology. The mindset has trickled down through Google's geek-filled staff and is enforced by an official policy that company engineers devote a quarter of their time to thinking up great, new ideas-even if their financial promise is questionable.

In many ways, co-founders Larry Page, 30, and Sergey Brin, 29, have the quintessential valley story: using Stanford as a lab for their brainchild, launching in a garage and attracting high tech's premier venture capitalists.

In the wake of the valley's most precipitous slump in decades, they represent a new dot-com generation focused on perfecting their product and turning a profit-before going public, not after.

While many investors and employees would love to see a Google initial public offering, the two founders recently have dampened those expectations. Going public would invite scrutiny of the company's bottom line, which could lead to short-term thinking and cautious strategy, they warn.

Instead, Google is tackling one of the biggest challenges of modern life: helping people find information that's important to them.

"It's a really important, big problem for the world," said Brin.

As for holding off on an IPO, he added: "Right now, I think we're really enjoying the time when we can have a lot of freedom and be as impactful as we possibly can."

Brin and Page so far have had their way, demanding only the sharpest technology, hiring only the smartest of employees (Google once required SAT scores of job candidates), and plowing ahead with ideas, sometimes quirky, that will take Google deeper into the lives of Internet users.

Without spending a dime on a branding campaign, Google has embedded itself in popular culture.

On a night that game-show host Regis Philbin asked the million-dollar question on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," Google registered tens of thousands of queries from users researching the answer.

Philbin wanted to know the maiden name of Carol Brady of TV's sitcom "The Brady Brunch." The answer, Tyler, is derived from near-instantaneous searches of a giant network of Google servers that index more than 3 billion Web pages. (Today, that search returns 3,440 Web links in 0.19 seconds.)

These days, Google is expanding its search territory to compete with bigger and broader Internet players like MSN and Yahoo.

There's Google News, thought up on an employee's whim, which offers up-to-the-minute news stories culled from 4,500 sources. There's the indexing of photos and catalogs. There's Froogle.com, a product search site.

Google's biggest money-maker is advertising. It gets paid to place small text ads above and next to non-commercial search results on its own site and the sites of partners such as America Online and Amazon.com. Google says its 100,000 advertisers make it the world's largest Web-ad network.

Google started with two Stanford computer science students, both sons of math professors. Brin, born in Moscow, and Page, from Michigan, sought to prove that a mathematical analysis of the links among Web sites could produce better search results than simply counting keywords. They defined relevancy by the number and quality of links to a Web site.

They called it Page Rank, after Larry Page. And the process could be completely automated, with no human editors.

The founders and first few employees met around a ping-pong table in a Menlo Park garage. During a 1998 meeting with early investors, Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim tired of listening to Brin and Page worry about spending money. He raced back to his Porsche and insisted on writing them a $100,000 check. He made it out to Google.

No such entity existed, forcing Brin and Page to set up the company in order to cash it. Google is a play on "googol"-the mathematical term for a 1 followed by 100 zeros-a reference to organizing the seemingly infinite Web.

Selecting a Mac Search Tool

Many small applications exist that allow Macintosh users to send their queries to selected search engines. I'll refer to these as search tools. These are summarized in Table 1 on pages 24 and 25. The table lists the name and Web site as well as other pertinent information. These applications range from free to $15. Some are expandable and others are not.

I look for a search tool that allows me to define my own favorite search sites and to add them easily. Interfaces in these applications vary, but all simply send the query to your default Web browser. I personally use SearchBar by Pomm"Soft (see Figure 12 below). It also has a preference to show the search engines in its icon on the dock, a handy feature that lets you reach all your search sites easily without having to switch the SearchBar application first (see Figure 13 below). It also has an icon installed in the menubar to allow for easy access to SearchBar from within any application (Note: This does not seem to work with Microsoft Office applications). SearchBar does not allow you to organize your search sites into separate folders, but it does allow you to order the sites in any order you wish, including an option to alphabetize the list. I tend to have so many search sites that the list becomes overly long and requires much scrolling. I prefer applications that allow me to organize sites into categories of my own choosing and then add the sites to the appropriate category.

Another search tool I use is jSearch, a Java-based tool. Unlike some of the other application, its interface is very sparse. It resides in the menubar. (Note: Again, this does not show up within Microsoft Office applications) and gives you access to many search sites. Customizable, it allows you to set up your own categories to organize your sites. It already comes set up with the major search engines (Google, Yahoo! and Ask.com); other useful sites for shopping, entertainment, etc.; as well as Mac-specific sites.

Here Come the Browsers

Safari, the browser supplied by Apple, includes a search box in the upper right corner that sends search queries to Google (see Figure 3 on page 201.

Unfortunately, Apple decided to hard-code Google as the search engine. But you can change the default to Yahoo! or any other search engine with some work. You do have to make changes to the Safari application using an editor. [For full details, see http://www.macosxhints.com/article.php?story=20030514035516436.]An easier alternative is to use an Applescript named Safari2Yahoo!, which changes it for you (available from MacUpdate.com or Version Tracker.com). This option limits you to Yahoo! since the script doesn't have any other options, although those familiar with Applescript could make the changes to the script itself.

An even better alternative, and the one that I have used, is SafariKeywords, a system preference pane that allows you to define shortcuts. This allows you to tell the search box to which search engine to send requests. SafariKeywords can be found at http://safarikeywords.sourceforge.net/.It comes with 28 pre-defined sites, including Yahoo!, Ask.com, Teoma, and Vivisimo, and allows you to add your own favorite search sites. I personally use SafariKeywords on a regular basis when searching within Safari, for example, to search the Internet Movie Database for movies with Meryl Streep (see Figure 4 at left).

It is relatively simple to add shortcuts to reach your favorite search site. Simply click on the "Add" button within the SafariKeywords preference pane (in the System Preferences) and then double-click on "new" to change its name (this will be the shortcut you type into the search box). Then go to your favorite search site and do a search. I usually do a search for "test" and copy the resulting URL, then double-click on the URL within the SafariKeywords pane, and paste in the URL. You will have to replace the word "test" with %'s in the URL. Now, any time you type in your keyword in the Safari search box, it will send the query following your keyword to the Web site you defined (see Figure 5 at left).

I recently replaced SafariKeywords with AcidSearch [http//www.pozytron.com/acidsearch] (see Figure 6 on page 22). It too modifies the search box within Safari, but it allow you to choose your search engine from a pop-up list, rather than having to remember keywords. Google is the default, but you can change this to any search engine on the list. It also allows you to organize sites into folders you set up. You can delete or modify any site selection to your own preference.

AcidSearch also allows you to create keyboard shortcuts to reach a search engine or site without having to click on the menu. I generally stay away from defining shortcuts, fearing potential conflicts, but these seem to work quite well in my limited testing.

The only feature I find lacking in AcidSearch is visual feedback as to which site is currently being selected. Clicking outside the search box will show the search engine unless there is text in the search box. It would help if the icon for the site were displayed in place of the magnifying glass icon. This would allow you to identify the current site at a glance.

Overall, I really like AcidSearch and have switched to it full time now. It is still relatively new, but quite robust for a 0.3 version. I like that I don't have to remember keywords and that I can add whatever search sites I want, organizing the sites in the way I think and work.

Firefox, an open source browser from Mozilla [http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/]is another attractive option. For heavy-duty searching, I prefer Firefox to Safari because of all the toolbars available, e.g., Firefox toolbar (by Ultra), an unofficial Googlebar (including Pagerank), as well as an unofficial Yahoo! bar. Firefox has many other useful extensions to help with searching.

Figure 7 on page 22 shows how I have Firefox set up.

The top toolbar is the Firefox Toolbar by Ultra shown with Ask Jeeves as the search engine. This toolbar, with all its options, is one of my favorites. The middle toolbar is the PRGoogleBar, offering most of Google's normal functionality as well as Pagerank. Below that appears the Yahoo! toolbar, which, besides searching, allows you to access other Yahoo! offerings, such as My Yahoo!. With all these bars, you can save some screen real estate by just showing icons. If you forget what a given icon means, just move the mouse over the icon and a small pop-up appears telling you the icon name.

The unofficial Google and Yahoo! bars work like the real thing. All the functionality is supposed to be the same. (I couldn't verify that since the official toolbars only work under Internet Explorer on Windows.) The Googlebar can quickly search various areas of Google, such as Images, Groups, Directory, and News. It also offers quick access to the special searches such as Catalog Search, Froogle shopping, Uncle Sam, as well as the BSD, Linux, Mac, and Microsoft searches. You can also use normal Google syntax within the search box, such as limiting the search to a given filetype by using filetype:xxx.

The Yahoo! toolbar offers searching of Yahoo! as well as access to other Yahoo! services such as mail and groups. You can use any of the syntax that you would use on the Yahoo! search page as well as all the Yahoo! shortcuts. The toolbar also gives quick access to the most-viewed articles on Yahoo! and maps, reference area, and yellow pages.

The one toolbar I couldn't do without is Firefox Toolbar by Ultra available from http://www.firefoxtoolbar.com/.It comes with 19 different search engines (including both Yahoo! and Google) and the ability to add your own. You can also alter the order in which the search engines appear so that your favorites appear at the top. You can add dividers to help you organize items. It would help if it would allow you to create folders -- such as major search engines, meta-search engines, and specialized search engines -- to better organize lists of favorite search sites.

I rank the ability to customize whatever toolbar I'm using as one of the top features. This is why Firefox Toolbar and AcidSearch are tools I use frequently. I can add whatever search engines I like or find most useful, add new sites as I find them, and delete ones I no longer use.

There are two other toolbars worth mentioning that I don't use often.

The Eureskter toolbar (see Figure 8 at left) is based on the concept of social networking. It works on the premise that one can improve search results by viewing what others with interests similar to yours have searched for. It gives personalized results based not on who you are but who you know. Since I'm not into the use of the Internet for social networking, I haven't found the Eureskter toolbar that useful. It also does not serve up its own results; the results displayed come from Yahoo!-owned AlltheWeb. Others, especially younger folks, may find it helpful. Eureskter should prove especially useful in instances when a group of folks do similar searches. If they all list each other as friends, then the results would theoretically get better as they each search for similar terms. Note that once you've performed a search and gone to a page from the results, you have to stay on that page for I minute for Eureskter to assume you like the site and for it to show up in future searches. Otherwise, it assumes you did not find the site useful and will ignore it.

This social networking concept has its disadvantages. Not all your "friends" share similar interests and this could potentially skew results. Also, as your friends invite other friends to join, the focus will tend to become diluted.

StumbleUpon is another search engine toolbar using the social networking metaphor. I tend to like it better than Eureskter, because it allows me to go through sites it recommends and then tell whether I like the site or not by simply clicking on the thumbs up or thumbs down button. I don't have to stay on the site for one minute to have the site remembered. This is especially useful when I find a site that may be interesting, but not the focus of my current search. However, the suggested topics are somewhat vague and not entirely useful for the professional searcher. I hope that as I use it more and it "learns" what I like, the suggested sites when I click the on the StumbleUpon button may provide better results.

Finally, there is a new toolbar for Firefox from Clusty, a new metasearch engine from the creators of Vivisimo (see Figure 9 at right).

It allows access to the various features available from the Web site [http://www.clusty.com] by clicking on the small triangle next to Search. It allows searching of the Web, news, encyclopedia, images, shopping, blogs, and gossip. The toolbar currently lacks options for tabs present on the Web site: PubMed, Open, Firstgov, and Gigablast. One nice feature is the availability to "search this site," which allows you to search for given text on the site you are currently browsing. In testing, I have noted that the Clusty toolbar seems more sensitive to changes made to the appearance of Firefox than other toolbars.

By far my favorite search extension for Firefox is the Mycroft search box available from http://mycroft.mozdev.org/download.html(seeFigure 10 at right).

Just like Safari, Firefox offers a search box in the upper-right corner. But, unlike Safari, Firefox -- using Mycroft - makes it very easy to choose a search engine from a pop-up list of engines. Just clicking on the small triangle in the search box brings up the list of search engines that you have added (see Figure 11 at right).

Currently there are 1,278 search sites that can be added to Mycroft, with more being added regularly. I currently have 55 search sites installed. Unfortunately, unless your favorite site is already available from the mycroft.mozdev.org site, it is somewhat difficult to add new sites. A Web page allows you to create your own [http://mycroft.mozdev.org/generator/]. I found the process overly complicated and awkward. It might be better to submit a request to have the developers add your favorite search site. Currently though, no more requests are being accepted due to the large backlog.

Amazon's A9 recently released a toolbar it claims works with Firefox on the Macintosh platform. I installed the toolbar and signed in with my Amazon.com account, but the toolbar just refused to work. Typing a term into the search box and hitting return did not give back a page of search results; nothing seemed to happen. Even worse, it also affected all the other toolbars I had installed! None of them would take the search text and return a page of results. Fortunately, un-installing A9's toolbar allowed my other toolbars to return to functioning normally. I have submitted feedback to A9 and it suggested a conflict with another toolbar. It seems that when the A9 and Yahoo! toolbar are both installed, A9 refuses to work. I tried an updated version several weeks later and still had the same problem, even after reporting the problem twice. The second time, A9 support did not even bother to reply to my e-mail. I find Yahoo! and the other toolbars much more useful then the A9 toolbar. Until it is fixed, I can't recommend the A9 toolbar, at least if you want to use any other toolbars.

Needlesearch [http://extensionroom.mozdev.org/ more-info/needlesearch] is another popular Firefox toolbar. I have used it in the past, but find it's too tall and taking up too much valuable screen real estate. It also seems to cause screen-redrawing problems for me. I've tried it on at least three different occasions, but its problems always seem more troublesome than any features it offers.

Macintosh Toolbars and Search Tools

Macintosh users are accustomed to either patiently waiting for the release of Mac versions of software packages or industriously hunting for alternatives to popular Windows-only software. Most of the popular Web search sites such as Google, Yahoo!, and Ask Jeeves have long made search toolbars available. However, none of the major players has released a Macintosh version of these toolbars and I'm not holding my breath. But that doesn't mean Mac users are left out in the cold; there are many different options. Some of these options are better than others.

Searching the Internet using a Mac has several angles when one starts looking for software assistance. I'll concentrate on applications that run under Mac OS X, leaving out those that only work under the old Macintosh system 9.2. I'll discuss Sherlock, browsers such as Safari and Firefox, and some of the many searchbars -- small applications that act as stand-alone search boxes and return results to your default browser. I'll also discuss some major Macintosh applications that allow searching of the Internet with some advanced features. Note that although this article will focus on the Macintosh platform, all the tools for Firefox are cross-platform-compatible, so Windows users can benefit from the sections covering Firefox.

Apple has provided one application to act as a Web service -- Sherlock. This application, which comes with every Macintosh computer, allows you to search the Internet using About.com, Best Site 1st, Looksmart, Lycos, and Overture. Plug-ins allow you to search Google as well as the Google directory. Sherlock lets you look up other types of information without resorting to use of your Web browser.

Are Google, Yahoo the next dinosaurs?

Internet search engines are locked in their own Darwinian drama. Depending how it turns out, desktop brands such as Google and Yahoo could become sturdier versions of themselves, ensuring survival as more people bolt for the mobile Web. Or they could become the Dodo birds of the Net -- outclassed by a new generation of rivals.

Born in the early days of the Internet, Google, Yahoo and smaller competitors help billions of people navigate the Web each day. Now, they're scrambling to adapt their desktop services for the hard realities of the wireless world.

Today, about 1 billion people have PCs; about 3 billion have mobile phones, growing to 4 billion by 2010. A major driver is the growing popularity of Web-enabled devices such as the Apple iPhone.

One of the biggest challenges: dealing with the matchbox-size screens of cellphones and other devices, which aren't hospitable to the ads that are the lifeblood of traditional search engines. Billions in potential ad revenue are at stake as social networks, location-based services and wireless search deliver instant answers to wireless users on the go.

"As hot as they are right now, Google and the others could become dinosaurs if they simply try to use their old business models," says Roger Entner, a senior vice president at IAG Research in Boston. But if they can adapt, he says, they could extend their dominance.

Microsoft has been pushing its Windows Mobile operating system for years. Today, it's available from 50 handset makers and more than 160 mobile operators worldwide.

Even so, it's been tough slogging, says Phil Holden, director of online services for Microsoft.

"What we've learned is that loyalty on the PC doesn't necessarily transfer to the mobile phone," he says. The wireless world, he adds, "has a lot of different dynamics."

One thing everybody agrees on: The mobile Web is an advertising gold mine just waiting to happen.

The fledgling mobile search industry generated about $700 million in ad revenue in 2007, JupiterResearch estimates. By 2012, revenue is expected to hit $2.2 billion and keep rising. Jupiter analyst Julie Ask says mobile search could eventually eclipse the traditional Web, which currently generates about $20 billion in ad revenue.

No matter how things shake out, consumers will benefit, predicts Ford Cavallari of Monitor Group, a consulting firm in Boston that specializes in technology. Search rankings based on factors that have little relation to the quality of a product or service, such as the number of daily "hits" a website gets, or a paid advertisement placement, are about to become history, he says.

Soon, word-of-mouth referrals from social-networking sites (think Facebook and MySpace) and customized data made possible by instant messaging and other instant communications will rule, he says.

The upshot: In the near future, a restaurant "might actually have to be high quality and offer value" to patrons to draw customers from the Web, Cavallari says.

"In the next 12 to 18 months we're going to see a growing segment of (consumers) using wireless services as the way to get on the Internet 95% of the time," says Imad Mouline, chief technology officer of Gomez, which helps Facebook, Expedia and other companies improve the quality of their Web presence. Currently, about 16% of cellphone owners use handheld devices to access the mobile Web, Jupiter says.

Entner, for one, thinks the mobile Web could produce a mighty rival to traditional desktop engines, one whose core strengths are rooted in the unique world of wireless. Such a newcomer, he says, "could wind up doing to Google what Google did to Yahoo" and other PC-based search engines. Namely, it could trump them in the marketplace.

To be sure, Google, a Web monster with a market value of more than $200 billion, would be tough to topple. But it's not impossible.

If it's not careful, Entner says, Google could wind up following in AOL's famous footsteps. AOL in the '90s was an online juggernaut with a gold-plated brand name and more than 30 million subscribers. Today, it's a free service with a dwindling base of about 8.7 million customers.

"Google is trying to replicate a 20-inch experience on a 2-inch screen, and that's leaving them, inevitably, about 90% short," he says.

Too much information

Making the leap to wireless is a lot trickier than it might appear.

For starters, there are those tiny screens. Internet search was designed for PC screens, which can easily accommodate loads of advertisements. The latter is critical, because search engines depend on ads for their financial survival.

In the PC environment, ads are abundant and constant. Paid advertisements are typically stripped along the right side of the PC screen, with premium spots at the top reserved for the biggest spenders.

Try that on a wireless device, and you'd quickly run out of room for anything else.

Similarly, the basic act of rendering searches also gets tough on a tiny screen.

In the online world, a single search request can result in a dozen or more pages of results. If results aren't specific enough, you simply resubmit a query. After a few tries, you usually find what you're looking for.

That entire process is a total non-starter in the wireless environment, says Sameer Mithal, a senior principal with IBB Consulting in Princeton, N.J.

Mobile consumers are typically on the run, he says, with little time or patience for typing on pint-size keypads. As for pages of search results -- forget about it. There isn't nearly enough screen space for that, Mithal says.

And advertisements? Approach with care; otherwise, you may offend customers and lose them for good, Gomez's Mouline warns. "Not doing it thoughtfully can get you to a point where customers will abandon your entire brand."

Traditional search engines, to some extent, are victims of their own success. Basic search algorithms are designed to do a massive Web "crawl" each time a search request is received.

In the mobile environment, however, such thoroughness can be the digital equivalent of using a shotgun to take out a housefly -- way too much firepower for the task at hand.

"The desktop search engines are what they are," Mithal shrugs. Even if you're only asking for a very specific thing -- a sports score, for example -- "they still have to search overall Web content."

Search engines, angling to win over mobile customers early, are racing to solve these problems. Their solutions, in some cases, are wildly different.

Yahoo's solution is a nod to the social-networking craze. Its OneConnect service, which makes its debut this summer, integrates messaging and social-networking updates from Facebook, MySpace and the like in one spot on the phone. OneConnect ties directly to a user's address book, letting people share information, social-networking updates and messages on the fly.

"On the phone, time is limited, so you really need to provide highly relevant and useful information," says Marc Davis, chief scientist for Connected Life, the Yahoo unit responsible for non-PC services, including mobile.

That philosophy is the force behind "OneSearch with Voice," which integrates voice-recognition technology with traditional search. The service allows users to simply speak their request into a cellphone -- "Where's the best craps table in Las Vegas?" -- in plain English. Responses are sent back in text form, as in any other search.

The voice-recognition technology is "so good, it's shocking," Davis says, handling accents, continuous speech and verbal affectations with ease.

While all searches, mobile and otherwise, use the same search algorithm, there is one big difference: Yahoo says mobile search responses are provided strictly on the basis of relevancy, with no preferential treatment for ad-supported products and services. "This is about providing answers, not links," Davis says.

Google says it sees no reason to change what it does just because it's moving into the wireless arena. "We think that what we do is highly transferable to the mobile device," says Matt Waddell, chief of mobile and developer products for Google.

The tiny screen isn't a problem, he says. "It's still as easy as typing."

That said, Google is making a few accommodations. Instead of giving wireless users pages of search results, for example, it only offers "snippets" -- Google-speak for the first few search results that appear at the top of the page. It's also limiting the number of ads to one or two per search.

Waddell says the advertising opportunities in wireless are huge. One example: Say you're in San Francisco, and you suddenly get an urge for pasta. Provided your device has Global Positioning System location technology, Waddell says, Google can offer up a list of Italian restaurants within a five-minute walk.

"Advertisers would probably be willing to pay more money for such an ad, because it would be much more targeted," he says.

While such an approach might seem to subjugate the interests of consumers to advertisers, Waddell says that's not the case at all. "We never think of advertising first," he says, adding, "We won't touch an ad with a 10-foot pole unless we think it delivers a better search experience."

Google on the go

Google is taking other steps to make sure it doesn't get iced out of wireless opportunities. The Web giant is pushing development of an open wireless operating system -- dubbed Android -- that would make it easier for consumers to use Google's mobile services. Android-loaded devices are expected to hit the market later this year.

While the big incumbents duke it out, start-ups are nipping at their heels. That includes Medio, a Seattle-based company that hopes to turn itself into the Google of mobile.

Like Google, Medio's service is geared around a simple "search box" format. That's where the similarity ends, CEO Brian Lent says. Medio "was designed as a pure-play company for the mobile industry."

Unlike Google, he says, Medio's patented algorithm hones in on "mobile discovery," producing far more relevant answers for users. Example: A search for a Madonna ring tone might also result in links to a CNN article about the singer, as well as VCast, the mobile music channel offered by Verizon.

"That's a lot different than crawling the Web" as Google does every time a query is received, Lent says.

Another difference: Medio is a "white label" company that works directly with big carriers such as Verizon and T-Mobile. Carriers, in turn, rebrand Medio's service under their own names.

Lent has a very personal view of the Web's biggest search engine. A data-mining expert, Lent was part of the academic team that worked on Google when it was still a lab project at Stanford. He left to take a job at Amazon a month before Google was incorporated.

Lent, who remains friends with Google co-founder Sergey Brin, says he's hugely admiring of Google's pioneering efforts. The Web giant, now a Medio partner, almost single-handedly raised the online search category to a new level, he says, introducing billions of people to the wonders of the Web.

rise in brokerage activity within franchising

When it comes to franchise lead generation, few methods are as effective -- or as controversial -- as the use of franchise brokers. Used sparingly by franchisors less than a decade ago, franchise brokerage networks are today used by nearly half of all active franchisors and, by some estimates, account for as much as 10 percent of franchise sales.

So what has accounted for this dramatic rise in the use of franchise brokers? How do they work? And are brokerage firms right for your franchise organization?

What has accounted for this dramatic rise in brokerage activity within franchising? In a word: the internet.

A decade ago, at the dawn of the modern internet, franchise buyers had limited access to information about the franchise universe. Prospective buyers had to do their research by looking through franchise directories, magazines and newspapers, and perhaps going to franchise or industry trade shows. But even the most daunting trade shows would have perhaps 200 franchisors to choose from, and most magazines would have fewer still. And while directories might have over 1,000 franchisors listed, the availability of information about these franchisors was severely limited.

Enter the internet. Today, there are nearly 3,000 active franchisors listed on the internet. Google "franchise opportunities," and you'll find a staggering 5 million pages that have been indexed. If prospective franchise buyers wanted to spend a minute looking at each of these pages, and they clicked away 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it would take them nearly 10 years to do so.

Clearly, this information overload has made it impossible for many people to effectively sort through the choices in the franchise universe -- paving the way at the franchise buyer level for a trusted intermediary who will help them through the morass.

At the same time, franchisors are finding it more and more difficult -- and expensive -- to obtain qualified leads. Increasingly, the internet is commanding the lion's share of their franchise marketing budgets, as franchise buyers turn to the internet first when doing their research. And since 90 percent of internet searches will extend only three pages deep, franchisors cannot rely on organic search optimization alone to get their message to the franchise buying public.

But the proliferation of franchise advertising portals -- last count we had identified more than 70 of them -- combined with increases in the costs of pay-per-click advertising (as prices continue to be bid up) have made it very expensive for new franchisors to advertise effectively across the internet.

Brokers, however, who may represent a hundred or more franchisors, have a real advantage when it comes to lead generation. While the typical franchisor has only one thing to sell to a franchise prospect, the broker has a virtual warehouse of opportunities. And by allocating their advertising costs across that warehouse, they can generate leads much more cost effectively.

This convergence of advertising economies and franchise buyer confusion has created the conditions responsible for the explosive growth of franchise brokers.

While brokers can clearly serve a valuable function, their role had been the subject of some controversy within franchising. This controversy is, at least in part, a function of the way in which they market themselves.

The typical brokerage network -- which in some cases is a franchise itself -- will market individual brokers as "franchise consultants," implying to some less sophisticated prospects that they are acting in the best interests of the prospective buyer and providing the buyer consulting advice. And while there is an element of truth to this, a fuller understanding of the facts illustrates that brokers are not the unbiased buyer's advocates some brokers may lead their prospects to believe.

To start with, the typical franchise brokerage network may represent a hundred or more franchise opportunities. Each of the franchisors they represent will pay them a success fee -- usually ranging between $10,000 and $15,000 -- if an introduction made by the broker results in a sale.

Since these firms represent perhaps 100 to 200 franchisors, their "consultants" have limited the franchise buyer's "choices" to less than 10 percent of the franchise universe, so they clearly cannot be entirely objective.

Brokerage firms, of course, will argue that they screen their franchisor clientele and choose the "best of the best" to represent. But while some brokerage firms are serious in their desire to represent the best, others may be more interested in franchisors that pay the best commissions, the franchisors with the highest close rates (if the franchisor cannot sell, of course, the broker gets no commission) or simply the best franchisor available in a category (some franchisors may work with limited numbers of brokers, limiting other brokers to the second best). And, since not every franchisor wishes to be represented by brokers, some good franchisors are, by necessity, excluded from even the most well meaning broker's analysis.

Once the brokerage network has secured its franchisor clientele, the individual brokers are then charged with finding prospective buyers and matching them to the best franchisors. The broker conducts franchise buying seminars, uses the internet or simply networks to find prospects. They qualify these prospects financially and try to determine their strengths, weaknesses and skills. They then generally make recommendations to multiple franchisors simultaneously -- usually between three and five -- in the hopes that their prospect buys any of the recommended franchisors. Because regardless of which franchisor is chosen, brokers receive their commission.

While the idea of finding an "ideal match" for prospective buyers again sounds good in principle, individual brokers are often motivated by factors outside the buyer's best interests. Franchisors may pay different levels of fees, providing one clear-cut motivation. Some franchisors offer broker spiffs -- ranging from bonuses to free trips to Hawaii. And of course, the broker doesn't get paid unless the franchisor closes the deal, so proven closers always rank high on the broker's short list when it comes time to make recommendations.

Again, it's important to emphasize that many brokers do have a genuine concern for their franchise buyer "clients." But even the most altruistic broker will, at a minimum, be subjected to the kinds of outside factors discussed above.

From a franchisor's perspective, brokers offer some significant advantages. Perhaps at the top of the list is the variable-cost nature of the brokerage process. Since franchisors don't pay until they make a franchise sale, they can receive comfort in the pay-for-performance nature of the relationship. Moreover, unlike traditional advertising, they don't have to pay these fees until after they have generated the franchise fee that allows them to pay.

Additionally, the franchisor receives a significant benefit in that each broker lead comes to them prequalified. These prospects take significantly less time and effort in the franchise sales process. And, given the combination of the "third party endorsement" provided by a broker and the prequalification that has been done, broker leads close at a significantly higher close rate than virtually any other type of lead. Franchisors who work closely with brokers continue to work with them throughout the sales process -- using them to obtain feedback from the prospect and to guide them more effectively through the sales process.

That said, brokers are not without their disadvantages.

First and foremost on the list of disadvantages is the fact that brokers aren't directly controlled by the franchisor. But at the same time, they can make representations that may subsequently expose the franchisor to liability, claims of fraud or potential franchisee ill will. With this in mind, the prudent franchisor makes it their responsibility to monitor how the brokerage network is representing them, provide the broker network with ongoing training and feedback and ensure that their franchisees are fully informed about the franchise from the franchisor's perspective.

Brokerage networks don't provide a magic pill for lead generation. They take work. Franchisors who rely heavily on brokers often attend or sponsor conventions for each brokerage network and develop formal communications plans to keep their concepts "top of mind" within their broker networks.

While brokerage leads do require more work, brokerage fees are significantly more expensive -- averaging 1.5 to 2 times more than an internally generated lead.

And, of course, brokers don't substitute for an internal sales force. Once the lead is generated, the franchisor remains responsible for the franchise sales process. And in most cases, that means paying a sales commission to the franchise salesperson--over and above the brokerage fees generated by that sale.

Finally, being represented by a broker (or several -- they generally don't require exclusivity) is not a guarantee of franchise sales success or even of increased lead flow. Sometimes, as the new franchisor on the block, you may find yourself with little brokerage action and perhaps some significant expenses to show for it.

The bottom line: Brokerage firms can be a tremendous boon for some franchisors, but that they should be viewed as a means of supplementing franchise sales activity, not as the exclusive mechanism for generating franchise leads.

In making a decision on the use of brokers, the factors that should enter into your decision-making process should include the aggressiveness of your franchise sales goals, the size of your marketing budget, desired geographic coverage and your willingness to monitor the brokerage network with care. As with most business decisions, there isn't one right answer. While brokers can drive huge levels of franchise sales for some organizations, they aren't right for everyone.

If brokers are a good fit for your franchise, select your brokerage network (or networks) with the same care that you would use in selecting your franchise sales force. Do so, and you may be well rewarded. Fail to do so, and you do it at your own peril.