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.

U Tube - haha ! when it all was just beginning

Internet search giant Google on Monday snapped up red-hot video-sharing website YouTube for $1.65 billion in an all-stock deal.

Video "is the next step in the evolution of the Internet," Google CEO Eric Schmidt told news reporters in a conference call.

YouTube, which launched in 2005, has grown overnight into the Internet's most popular place to watch videos, showing 100 million daily. Yet, along the way it became a hotbed for copyright infringement, with many contributors posting videos of TV shows or using copyrighted songs in homegrown productions.

YouTube, in clearing the way for a deal, announced an alliance with record label Universal Music -- one of the site's harshest critics -- that called for a filtering system that would automatically weed out videos with its songs.

By aligning with Google, YouTube now has the resources to build an even stronger filtering system that would please all content owners, said Chad Hurley, 29, one of YouTube's co-founders.

Google said YouTube will remain independent, with a separate website. Google will continue to run its own Google Video site, which also features homemade videos and professional content from networks and movie studios.

Where visitors will see change is in Google searches: Videos from YouTube will begin appearing in search results.

The addition of YouTube videos brings "a humongous amount of content that will be searchable" on Google, says John Battelle, who runs the Searchblog website. That makes Google that much more valuable, he says, because it can profit with more advertising from YouTube videos.

Google reported $6.1 billion in revenue last year, virtually all from little text-based ads that appear near search results. It's been on a tear this year, trying to expand into video advertising and creating recent alliances with MTV Networks and MySpace.

Now, says Scott Kessler, an analyst at research firm Standard & Poor's, Google is "far and away the leader in video advertising."

Investors applauded Google's deal. Shares in the company rose $2.75 in after-hours trading after closing at $429, up $8.50 a share, in regular trading.

In less than a year, YouTube in San Bruno, Calif., quickly became a social phenomenon as a way for users to easily share -- and discuss -- homegrown videos. It has seen a 2,500% increase in its audience base, according to measurement firm ComScore Media Metrix.

The site had 72 million visitors in August, up from just 2.8 million visitors a year before. It's now the Internet's 14th-most-visited site. Google is No. 3 after Yahoo and MSN.

Google, IBM team up on PC desktop search

IBM is teaming up with Google to find documents on personal computers. The newest plug-in for IBMs enterprise search technology will integrate with Google Desktop for Enterprise, which is downloadable free.

Customers using IBM WebSphere Information Integrator OmniFind Edition can now search and retrieve various types of content from their personal computers using the Google Desktop for Enterprise interface. That means users will have a single interface for searching desktop, enterprise and web content.

The Google Desktop integration with IBM OmniFind search technology will unlock information distributed across an organization, including personal computers, enterprise content management systems, databases and other enterprise applications, as well as the Internet.

"Google Desktop for Enterprise helps users navigate the growing sea of information on their PC, including their overflowing inbox, documents, presentations, PDF files, and web pages they've visited," said Dave Girouard, general manager, Google Enterprise.

Google has already announced that Google Desktop for Enterprise can search the full text of IBM Lotus Notes mail messages stored on a local computer. This feature allows search of all Lotus Notes databases and mail servers in addition to local mail files.

Battle to retain net neutrality

In a Businessweek interview, he eschewed the usual bland optimism of senior US executives, saying: "Is our revenue growth great? No, it's terrible. But it's a lot better than losing." Even faced with that source of constant optimism - the internet - he had reason to complain: "We and the cable companies have made an investment [ in the net] . . . For a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!"

At first glance, that's a perfectly reasonable statement. SBC "owns the pipes" that connect much of the US internet. Google hasn't paid a cent to SBC to carry its searches, instant messages, and web spiders across those pipes. And Google isn't some neutral traveller. In some ways Google is a direct competitor to SBC. The Google Talk service provides telephony. Google Mail takes away one of the value-added features of its internet service.

Why should Google freeload off companies that own the wires? In his complaint, Whitacre avoids the other side of the equation. SBC obtains what Google has to offer for free, and resells it to his customers.

There wouldn't be much market for an internet service that blocked or filtered away the millions of sites that couldn't - or wouldn't - pay up for transit.

But is it not fair to have some solid negotiation between those two values? Both Google and SBC, after all, operate within a market: perhaps Google's worth to SBC might be less than SBC's worth to Google. Perhaps some sort of deal should be arranged.

The difficulty with such bargaining is that Whitacre wilfully ignores the great benefit of the net. The internet began as a co-operative "net of nets", and one of the reasons it worked so well was that those connecting independent networks chose not to complicate things with an elaborate calculus of costs and benefits. They just plugged their networks together, and agreed to transport each other's data.

Even now, many of the companies that share ownership of those "pipes" have peering arrangements - mutual agreements to carry data - rather than financial contracts. By eliminating the costs of billing and negotiation, the net reduced the overall transaction cost of data flows for everyone, with benefits for the growth of the net and for the majority of its users.

But Whitacre does not need to stay within the unwritten rules of the net. Internet providers increasingly make private contracts with each other. SBC is perfectly free to charge Google what it likes. It seems the only thing holding it back is, like so much on the net, mutual goodwill.

But it's more than just the goodwill of these two behemoths that's at stake. Increasingly, consumer outrage drives them. If Google was cut off tomorrow, who would get the blame - Google for not paying these new bills, or the American network provider that decided to isolate them? Google, then, is safe from Whitacre's bills. But what about smaller sites? Most net users rebel at the idea of SBC filtering and censoring sites or services. A neutrality of the network is as embedded in our modern vision of the internet as the web browser. The net's remarkable resistance to "censorship" comes from most of its users.

Perhaps that's down to the distributed nature, the reciprocity, of the net. If you see one site censored today, you may be the owner of the site that gets censored tomorrow. Internet companies peer because they are, broadly speaking, equals.

But that's not to say that the neutrality of the net might not get nibbled away at the edges. It's easy to spot when a website vanishes. But what if a company like SBC subtly and gradually degraded the Voice-over-IP (Internet telephony) services of other companies, such as Skype and Google Talk? Would anyone put their finger on the problem, or would it just appear that SBC's internet telephone product was better than the competition?

As with so many net principles these days, the time when the law may step in is approaching. In the US, politicians attempting to reform the 1996 telecommunications act are beginning to hum and haw about legislating a specific commitment to net neutrality.

Whitacre's throwaway comments mark more than his intuitive feeling about how much Google should divert to his coffers. It's a rhetorical stalking horse in a long and elaborate game of persuasion.

Regulators and academics will struggle to verbalise what the creators of the net - and its users - understand instinctively. With so much to win and lose, it may be the chief executive who can best impress his common sense explanation on the politicians who will determine the balance sheet of the future net.

Once the issue of who pays online is raised, there's no one who can remain truly neutral.

From your lips to Google's ear

It all began with a little search engine that could. Then, as we Googled away, other applications appeared - news, maps, email and a desktop organizer. As of today, you needn't leave the comfort of Google for even a gab with your friends.

With the expected launch of Google Talk, its new instant messaging program with voice-over-Internet capabilities, the company once viewed as the antithesis of Microsoft is another step closer to cyber world domination.

"To get ... instant messaging into the picture, it's just another step along the way of kind of being a complete destination," said Jon Arnold, a telecom consultant with an interest in VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol, which allows phone conversations over information networks such as the Internet).

Google's e-business model has so far spun its popularity as a search engine into advertising dollars like none other, Arnold says. Its email, news, and mapping services are already giving other services a run for their PayPal credits, despite its late entry into those arenas. Last week, the company launched Google Sidebar, a desktop search and organization application. That was punctuated by the announcement of plans to raise $4 billion in a secondary stock offering - which some analysts speculated could be used to fund far-flung projects such as Internet telephony.

And now, Google Talk is being released in a beta test version (a preliminary version launched to test for bugs and solicit user feedback) for Windows 2000 and Windows XP. It will be available to users who have or sign up for an account with the company's free Gmail email system. The voice chat requires that both the caller and recipient have speakers and a microphone hooked up to their computers. The new Google program features a basic user interface with few graphics, much like the main Google search site.

"We'll have an uncluttered interface that allows you to search over your contacts pretty easily," said Georges Harik, director of product management at Google. "It just stays out of your way unless you want to connect to someone."

Google based its software on the Jabber open standard (a list of publicly available technical specifications for instant messaging software), which will work with smaller networks that are based on the same technology. Text messages can be exchanged with users of Apple Computer Inc.'s iChat, Cerulean Studios' Trillian and the open-source Gaim program.

Google also is inviting programmers to build its technology into their software, including computer games.

With Google Talk, the company hopes to capture a potentially huge audience. AOL's messaging program has about 41.6 million U.S. users, followed by Yahoo Messenger with 19.1 million and MSN Messenger with 14.1 million, according to ComScore Media Metrix's July report.

"Once you can bring voice (and) messaging together, you've really got the consumer pretty tied up," Harik added, "and then that advertising model that Google has done so well with can really be taken to a whole other level."

Tied up is about right. During her holidays, Dawn Verhart, 27, of Toronto spends 12 hours a day signed into Microsoft's MSN Messenger. The Richmond Hill special education teacher has been typing conversations with her friends and family for eight years via text-based instant messaging, first with ICQ (now owned by AOL), and now with MSN. Her contact list includes her sister and brother-in-law in the U.S., who met via instant messaging, and about 30 other people all over southern Ontario.

"I'll go by (my computer) and see who's on and if there's anybody I want to talk to, I'll talk to them," she explains. She likes the fact that she can tell if people are available. "It's cheaper, too, than long-distance phone calls."

Harik said Google has no intention of trying to become a popular bridge to the other major instant-messaging providers. "We're not going to do anything like force other networks to inter-operate with us."

But without compatibility with programs such as MSN and Yahoo Messenger, sceptics argue it will be difficult to get users like Verhart to switch from established programs.

She agrees. "I think people like just using what they know," Verhart said, explaining she switched to MSN from ICQ because most of her friends were on MSN.

However, outside developers who incorporate Google Talk into their programs might try to enable such inter-operability.

Whether or not that happens, Arnold thinks good voice features could potentially win users over from text-dominated messaging programs like MSN and Yahoo Messenger. "They have modest capabilities to do voice, but they don't have really good capabilities to do voice."

He said the recent success of Skype, a VoIP service that has gone from 2 million to 47 million users since the start of 2004, illustrates the potential. And he added with Google's business might and know-how, the company's late entry into the messaging and VoIP world might not be a serious handicap.

"It's all right to be late to the party when so little money has been made," he said. "The voice game is still very early days."

Unlike Internet phone services such as Vonage and Skype, Google's voice service does not support calls to the regular telephone system.

On the other hand, Arnold notes, "Google is a much bigger name than Skype." Almost everyone has used Google, and that might make them willing to give Google Talk a try.

"Google's got some good things," said Verhart, "so if it's up to the same standard as their search engines and their map programs, it's probably okay."

Will Google help save the planet?

WE'RE not the first to discover this, but we'd like to confirm, from the crew of Apollo 17, that the world is round," said astronaut Eugene Cernan during the 1972 mission when the first clear image of the whole illuminated Earth was taken.

The picture, dubbed the "blue marble" by NASA astronauts, has likely "been seen by more human beings than any other image in the world", says Mike Gentry, a photo archivist at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. "It was a symbol of hope for the future, unity and of a healthy planet."

Now geographers and environmentalists are hoping that a new set of images made freely available by the search engines Google and MSN Search will have a similar effect.

The release of Google Earth, a collection of bird's-eye photographs covering every inch of the planet, is likely to open up new advertising opportunities for the search engine and give it an edge over its rivals. But environmentalists say it may have another effect: revitalising the public's desire to preserve our beautiful but vulnerable planet.

"I think what Google has done could have the same kind of impact on people as the first images of Earth from the Apollo spacecraft," says Tim Haigh, a project manager at the European Environment Agency (EEA) in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The photos were taken by a variety of satellites and aircraft and have been stitched together and wrapped around a 3D virtual sphere that can be downloaded onto an ordinary PC from the internet (http://earth.google.com).

Google acquired the technology in October 2004 when it bought Keyhole, the company that owned it. The software was then made freely available at the end of June. A month later, rival search giant MSN released its own version, called MSN Virtual Earth, which is similar but does not yet cover the whole planet and is not as slick as Google Earth.

To run Google Earth you need a graphics-enabled PC equipped with a broadband internet connection. Once installed, it allows you to spin the Earth in three dimensions on the desktop and zip around the planet as if you were flying in a spaceship.

Some think that just looking at these images will be enough to inspire people to care for the planet. Others think it is the ability to zoom in on anything, from the Egyptian pyramids or the Grand Canyon to their own neighbourhood, that will highlight the Earth's small size and vulnerability.

Users can zoom in either by scrolling with the mouse or by typing a city name or zip code into the search line. The resolution ranges from covering 1 kilometre in many areas of the world to 15 centimetres per pixel in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Google says it is continuing to add new information to its database, and its goal is to refresh its images every 18 months.

"The ability to zoom from the whole planet down to the home and backyard will help people make the connection between themselves and their planet," says Allen Carroll, chief cartographer at the National Geographic Society in Washington DC. "Google Earth will no doubt raise awareness about how small and precious our Earth is."

But Pascal Gilles, who heads the European Space Agency's CryoSat mission to monitor precise changes in the thickness of the polar ice sheets and floating sea ice and is based in Rome, Italy, says it is not enough just to make images available. "If we want to make people aware of the limited resources of the planet, we have to embed the information in an image," he says.

The EEA is already working on a "neighbourhood" project that will embed environmental reports, land use and air emissions data inside free online geographical images of all the European countries, and is scheduled to go live by 2008. The National Geographic Society will also release a free, zoomable 3D image of the Earth later this year, similar to Google Earth, and has plans to embed environmental information within it.

But in theory environmentalists could simply create overlays or embedded links to environmental information that connect to Google Earth. The search giant has released tools on the Google Earth site that allow data to be overlaid on top of or embedded inside its satellite images.

So far this tool has not been used by environmental groups, but it has spawned hundreds of quirky creations and a website dedicated to them, which is called Google Earth Hacks (www.googleearthhacks.com).

One user has marked the Seven Wonders of the World onto Google Earth, and recorded them in a file as a tour on the Google Earth Community forum, which can be accessed via a link from the main site. Users downloading the tour are "flown" from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon right through to the pyramids, with links to information about each wonder.

But there could be a downside to putting these vast reservoirs of information at people's fingertips. If the resolution of the images is increased, people might object to a picture of their house being freely available.

Google and MSN's products might also make it easier to rehearse criminal attacks. There is a feeling that the ability to sail between the tall buildings of Manhattan, using Google's 3D "buildings" feature, would make a great training tool for terrorists. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation has asked Google to consider censoring sensitive information.

Most experts dismiss these issues, however, and Google says: "The same information is available to anyone who flies by or drives over a piece of property."

Perhaps the most worrying issue raised by Google Earth and MSN Virtual Earth is that the public will assume their maps are always accurate. This was highlighted when the first users of MSN Virtual Earth quickly pointed out that the headquarters of rival company Apple were not at the appropriate location in the satellite pictures. MSN claims that this is because the satellite picture was out of date, but experts say the message is clear. "We are starting to rely on Google and Microsoft for our view of the world," says David Sonnen, a GIS consultant based in Bellingham, Washington. "I don't know what that means yet, but I do know that it's very important."

"Google Earth could have the same kind of impact as the first images of Earth from Apollo"

Google offers Yahoo help to rebuff Microsoft's bid

Google has entered the fray in Microsoft's unsolicited $44.6 billion bid for struggling internet company Yahoo by suggesting that it would hamper the "openness of the internet".

Google published a statement at the weekend which said the bid raised "troubling questions".

The Wall Street Journal also claimed that last Friday Google chief executive Eric Schmidt rang Jerry Yang, his opposite number at Yahoo, and offered Google's support in rebuffing Microsoft's offer.

Yahoo executives are reported to be considering an alliance with Google to keep Microsoft at bay.

In a blog post entitled "Yahoo and the future of the internet", Google's chief legal officer David Drummond, said if Microsoft acquired Yahoo it would threaten the "openness and innovation" that has underpinned the internet.

"Could Microsoft now attempt to exert the same sort of inappropriate and illegal influence over the internet that it did with the PC?," asked Mr Drummond. "While the internet rewards competitive innovation, Microsoft has frequently sought to establish proprietary monopolies - and then leverage its dominance into new, adjacent markets."

In response, Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel issued a statement which said the combined company "will create a more competitive marketplace by establishing a compelling number two competitor for internet search and online advertising".

Mr Smith also pointed to Google's dominance of the search-related advertising market, where it has a 75 per cent market share. According to its offer letter Microsoft is primarily interested in Yahoo to enhance its ability to compete with Google for a share of the online advertising which was worth $40 billion last year. Microsoft believes it can get 40 per cent of that market by combining with Yahoo.

Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer stated that Microsoft needs to compete aggressively against Google in providing web services.

Yesterday, Microsoft stepped up the pressure on Yahoo's board by saying it expects it to agree to the deal quickly. "We trust the Yahoo board and the Yahoo shareholders will join with us quickly in deciding to move down an integrated path," Mr Ballmer said.

The price of coddling Google - how Yahoo lost its way

Almost eight years ago, Yahoo decided to lend a little start-up a helping hand, featuring its search technology on the Yahoo home page and giving it money at a critical juncture.

In cut-throat Silicon Valley, no good deed goes unpunished.

The start-up was Google, and Yahoo's generosity helped launch the most formidable competitor it had ever encountered. Now facing a takeover attempt by Microsoft, Yahoo is coming to terms with the punishing consequences of its complex relationship with Google, including a futile attempt to copy Google's extraordinarily profitable advertising model at significant cost to Yahoo's own business.

Long before the world learned that Google had turned the Internet into an amazing money-minting machine, Yahoo knew.

When Google was still a private company, it sent its financial statements to Yahoo's headquarters in Sunnyvale like clockwork. Google had to because Yahoo was one of its earliest investors.

The statements showed the incredible growth of Google's search advertising business, with sales more than doubling from quarter to quarter.

But Yahoo executives didn't focus on the money; they were interested in how much traffic was being driven by search, recalled Ellen Siminoff, an executive who joined Yahoo in 1996.

In 2000, Yahoo agreed to use and promote Google, which it touted as "the best search engine on the Internet." Google co-founder Larry Page described the pact as a "major milestone."

The following year, Yahoo was even more generous, paying Google $7.2 million for its services (Google in turn paid Yahoo $1.1 million for promotional help). Google desperately needed the money, which helped pushed it into the black for the entire year.

Yet Yahoo was hardly flush with cash. After two years of profit, Yahoo reported an annual loss of $93 million in 2001. The value of its stock had collapsed from $118.75 a share in January 2000 to $4.05 in September 2001.

Meanwhile, Yahoo's promotional push was having an effect on Google. "When we were turning the business around in 2001, Google was already becoming the ascendant player in Europe, especially in the U.K., which is one of the most important advertising markets," recalled L. Jasmine Kim, a former vice president for global marketing and sales development for Yahoo.

The international team tried to telegraph their concern to Sunnyvale, Kim recalled. "In hindsight, it is easy to say we should have seen it as we did discuss our concerns, but technology moves at the speed of light. The game changed."

Yahoo management did not respond to questions about the company's relationship to Google.

The tech industry's giants -- like Microsoft, Intel and Oracle -- are famous for ruthlessly dealing with competitors. Not Yahoo.

In 2002, Yahoo paid Google $13.2 million, equivalent to more than a quarter of Yahoo's annual profit of $43 million. The sum, however, meant less to Google, which had blown past its benefactor with an annual profit of about $100 million.

But the price of coddling Google would be much higher, as Yahoo soon discovered.

In May 2001, Yahoo replaced Chief Executive Tim Koogle, a folksy, guitar-playing engineer, with Terry Semel, a veteran Hollywood deal maker who had rarely used e-mail.

Semel may not have been a technology guru but he knew that search would be key to Yahoo's success.

He also realized Yahoo had a big problem: It had neither its own search technology nor the software for handling search advertising.

Semel's first move: He struck a deal with Pasadena-based Overture Systems to provide ads for Yahoo's search results. Then he tried to buy Google.

After those talks fizzled in 2002, Semel acquired Inktomi, a search engine, for $235 million in December 2002. Seven months later he bought Overture for $1.6 billion.

The deals gave Yahoo a huge boost. In 2004, revenue doubled and profit more than tripled. Yahoo's stock vaulted from $16.10 a share on the day the Overture deal was announced on July 14, 2003, to $37.68 at the end of 2004.

In early 2005, when both companies reported their 2004 earnings, it seemed like Yahoo and Google might even be neck and neck. While Google had revved its profit engine harder -- for an increase of 276 percent compared with Yahoo's 252 percent -- Yahoo boasted a larger increase in sales - 119 percent to Google's 113 percent.

"What's even more important than exceeding any one of our financial targets, however, is the way in which we've achieved them, and they do flow from a robust foundation," Chief Financial Officer Sue Decker told analysts in January 2005.

Semel and Decker told Wall Street that Yahoo was in a better position than Google because it sold both search advertising, ads triggered by search queries, and display advertising, image-based ads that appear as banners or other graphical elements on a Web page.

The executives explained that Yahoo could cross-sell the two kinds of advertising and be a one-stop shop for the world's biggest brands.

"It became clear over the course of a year that there wasn't anything to that," said Mark Mahaney, an analyst with Citigroup.

It turned out Yahoo's happy ending was more Hollywood than reality.

While Yahoo's business had certainly improved, it was nowhere near catching Google.

Yahoo's revenues in 2004 had doubled largely as a result of the acquisition of Overture. And its profit that year was swollen by the sale of $400 million of Google stock.

Yahoo sold its remaining stake in Google, roughly 4.2 million shares, the following year for nearly $1 billion, again boosting its profit.

Executives continued to tout Yahoo's financial performance. "I am very proud of the remarkable growth and progress Yahoo has demonstrated throughout this past year," Semel said on Jan. 17, 2006.

But shares fell 13 percent the next day as investors responded to the news that core profit was a penny less than analysts had expected.

And the rate of sales growth fell by more than 60 percent, exposing the isolated bump Yahoo's sales had received from buying Overture.

During the next two years, Yahoo's stock plunged an additional 45 percent. On Jan. 31, the day before Microsoft made its bid, Yahoo traded around $19 a share, the same level it traded at in fall 2003.

In 2007, Yahoo introduced new software that boosted the amount of money it earned from search advertising. Investors had waited years for the project known as "Panama" to be completed. The technology was seen as key to Yahoo regaining competitiveness.

But Panama didn't come close to closing the gap with Google. Yahoo's sales that year were almost $7 billion, compared with $16.6 billion for Google.

Worse, Yahoo said it expected to grow only about 10 percent the following year. (Google doesn't forecast future growth; however, its revenue increased 57 percent in 2007.)

"We are disappointed with guidance and don't expect investors to have confidence in management's investment decisions," Rob Sanderson of American Technology Research wrote in a note Jan. 30.

Unable to compete with Google in search advertising, Yahoo also appeared to be losing its edge in display advertising, where it was No. 1.

In September 2006, Decker and Semel warned they were seeing weakness in display advertising related to financial services and cars. "We think it is kind of early to tell whether this is a sign of anything broader," Decker cautioned.

In fact, it was the beginning of a long slide. Analyst Doug Anmuth of Lehman Brothers estimates that the growth of Yahoo's display business dropped by half, from 33 percent in 2006 to 16.5 percent in 2007.

The main cause of the decline was increased competition, especially from social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.

However, plenty of former Yahoos also blamed top management in Sunnyvale. "They were concentrated on two things: technology and technology," said Jerry Shereshewsky, a senior Yahoo marketing executive who left the company last summer and is now CEO of Grandparents.com.

"Yahoo as a company never really understood they were first and foremost in the media business supported almost wholly by advertising."

Former employees from other divisions also faulted management as indecisive, said more than a dozen who asked not to be quoted by name because it might hurt future business opportunities.

Other complaints: Upper management was plagued by cronyism. Even when new ideas got a green light, the projects were starved of resources. There were too many people with inflated titles, too many business units and too little cooperation among them.

Among the missed opportunities, former employees said, was a chance to buy Facebook when Mark Zuckerberg was still enrolled in Harvard and open to a deal.

Around the same time, business development people at Yahoo unsuccessfully tried to stir up interest in MySpace. But senior executives wanted major deals that would "move the needle," said a former employee. MySpace was too small.

In 2006, an effort to buy YouTube foundered when Yahoo insisted on a clause in the contract that gave Yahoo an out if the video-sharing site was sued. Google agreed to remove the clause and got YouTube.

By 2007 the social-networking sites would be big enough to challenge Yahoo for display advertising. According to industry estimates, MySpace ranked second only to Yahoo in revenue from display advertising and page views.

And YouTube was the Web's undisputed top video destination, despite Yahoo's efforts to compete.

This week Google announced its acquisition of DoubleClick, which inserts primarily display advertising on Web pages owned by major publishers.

"At best, it's alarming for Yahoo," said Jim Barnett, chief executive of Turn, which provides software for optimizing display advertising. "Google already has the dominant position in search, and this puts Google in a very advantageous market position to take share in display."

Here, too, Yahoo missed an opportunity. After the dot-com crash in 2000, Yahoo briefly considered developing similar software, but decided against it.

Since November 2006, Yahoo has been working to build software that will serve targeted display advertisements to members of a consortium that now includes more than 600 newspapers.

The software has been expected to provide a major boost to Yahoo and its newspaper partners. But it is still not ready. By the time it is finished, Yahoo could well be a division of Microsoft.

Yahoo's high price for coddling Google

Yahoo decided to lend a little start-up a helping hand, featuring its search technology on the Yahoo home page and giving it money at a critical juncture.

In cut-throat Silicon Valley, no good deed goes unpunished.

The start-up was Google, and Yahoo's generosity helped launch the most formidable competitor it had ever encountered. Now facing a takeover attempt by Microsoft, Yahoo is coming to terms with the punishing consequences of its complex relationship with Google, including a futile attempt to copy Google's extraordinarily profitable advertising model at significant cost to Yahoo's own business.

Long before the world learned that Google had turned the Internet into an amazing money-minting machine, Yahoo knew.

When Google was still a private company, it sent its financial statements to Yahoo's headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif., like clockwork. Google had to because Yahoo was one of its earliest investors.

The statements showed the incredible growth of Google's search advertising business, with sales more than doubling from quarter to quarter.

But Yahoo executives didn't focus on the money; they were interested in how much traffic was being driven by search, recalled Ellen Siminoff, an executive who joined Yahoo in 1996.

In 2000, Yahoo agreed to use and promote Google, which it touted as "the best search engine on the Internet." Google co-founder Larry Page described the pact as a "major milestone."

The following year, Yahoo was even more generous, paying Google $7.2 million for its services. (Google in turn paid Yahoo $1.1 million for promotional help.) Google desperately needed the money, which helped push it into the black for the entire year.

Yet Yahoo was hardly flush with cash. After two years of profit, Yahoo reported an annual loss of $93 million in 2001. The value of its stock had collapsed from $118.75 a share in January 2000 to $4.05 in September 2001.

Meanwhile, Yahoo's promotional push was having an effect on Google. "When we were turning the business around in 2001, Google was already becoming the ascendant player in Europe, especially in the U.K., which is one of the most important advertising markets," recalled L. Jasmine Kim, a former vice president for global marketing and sales development for Yahoo.

Members of the international team tried to telegraph their concern to Sunnyvale, Kim recalled. "In hindsight, it is easy to say we should have seen it as we did discuss our concerns, but technology moves at the speed of light. The game changed."

Yahoo management did not respond to questions about the company's relationship with Google.

The tech industry's giants _ like Microsoft, Intel and Oracle _ are famous for ruthlessly dealing with competitors. Not Yahoo.

In 2002, Yahoo paid Google $13.2 million, equivalent to more than a quarter of Yahoo's annual profit of $43 million. The sum, however, meant less to Google, which had blown past its benefactor with an annual profit of about $100 million.

But the price of coddling Google would be much higher, as Yahoo soon discovered.

In May 2001, Yahoo replaced Chief Executive Tim Koogle, a folksy, guitar-playing engineer, with Terry Semel, a veteran Hollywood dealmaker who had rarely used e-mail.

Semel may not have been a technology guru, but he knew search would be key to Yahoo's success.

He also realized Yahoo had a big problem: It had neither its own search technology nor the software for handling search advertising.

Semel's first move: He struck a deal with Pasadena, Calif.-based Overture Systems to provide ads for Yahoo's search results. Then he tried to buy Google.

After those talks fizzled in 2002, Semel acquired Inktomi, a search engine, for $235 million in December 2002. Seven months later, he bought Overture for $1.6 billion.

The deals gave Yahoo a huge boost. In 2004, revenue doubled and profit more than tripled. Yahoo's stock vaulted from $16.10 a share on the day the Overture deal was announced July 14, 2003, to $37.68 at the end of 2004.

In early 2005, when both companies reported their 2004 earnings, it seemed like Yahoo and Google might even be neck and neck. While Google had revved its profit engine harder _ for an increase of 276 percent compared with Yahoo's 252 percent _ Yahoo boasted a larger increase in sales _ 119 percent to Google's 113 percent.

"What's even more important than exceeding any one of our financial targets, however, is the way in which we've achieved them, and they do flow from a robust foundation," Chief Financial Officer Sue Decker told analysts in January 2005.

Semel and Decker told Wall Street that Yahoo was in a better position than Google because it sold both search advertising, ads triggered by search queries, and display advertising, image-based ads that appear as banners or other graphical elements on a Web page.

The executives explained that Yahoo could cross-sell the two kinds of advertising and be a one-stop shop for the world's biggest brands.

"It became clear over the course of a year that there wasn't anything to that," said Mark Mahaney, an analyst with Citigroup.

It turned out Yahoo's happy ending was more Hollywood than reality.

While Yahoo's business had certainly improved, it was nowhere near catching Google.

Yahoo's revenue in 2004 had doubled largely as a result of the acquisition of Overture. And its profit that year was swollen by the sale of $400 million of Google stock.

Yahoo sold its remaining stake in Google, roughly 4.2 million shares, the following year for nearly $1 billion, again boosting its profit.

Executives continued to tout Yahoo's financial performance. "I am very proud of the remarkable growth and progress Yahoo has demonstrated throughout this past year," Semel said on Jan. 17, 2006.

But shares fell 13 percent the next day as investors responded to the news that core profit was a penny less than analysts had expected.

And the rate of sales growth fell by more than 60 percent, exposing the isolated bump Yahoo's sales had received from buying Overture.

During the next two years, Yahoo's stock plunged an additional 45 percent. On Jan. 31, the day before Microsoft made its bid, Yahoo traded at about $19 a share, the same level it traded at in fall 2003.

In 2007, Yahoo introduced new software that boosted the amount of money it earned from search advertising. Investors had waited years for the project known as "Panama" to be completed. The technology was seen as key to Yahoo regaining competitiveness.

But Panama didn't come close to closing the gap with Google. Yahoo's sales that year were almost $7 billion, compared with $16.6 billion for Google.

Internet addiction is no laughing matter

Five years ago, poking fun at his profession, psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg coined the term "Internet addiction disorder" as a joke. No one is laughing anymore. Though still ill-defined and poorly researched, Internet addiction has emerged as a serious--and growing--problem.

As millions more go online, people are increasingly engaging in risky behavior, playing havoc with their work, relationships, and lives. Tracy, who asked that her last name not be used, is one of them. A divorced mother of two in Portland, Ore., she entered a singles chat room last May and got hooked. Soon she was skipping meals and staying up late at night to chat with newfound male friends. She began missing work, neglecting her kids, and losing her inhibitions. Rapidly, she progressed from chats to cybersex to phone sex with 40 different men. "I went completely beyond all my normal boundaries," she says.

A friend suggested she talk to Jay Parker, an addiction counselor in Seattle. He convinced her she was addicted to both sex and the Internet. When she tried to stop, she fell into depression and attempted suicide. Finally, on July 9, she gave up chat rooms and cybersex. With support from her parents, she entered a six-week treatment center for sex addiction, where she found others who had become hooked on the Net. By December, she was back at work, living on her own again, and staying out of chat rooms. "I still have a computer at home, but I'm using it safe now," Tracy says.

Caught in the Net. No one knows how many people develop personal problems because of Internet misuse. In the largest study to date--an ABC News survey of more than 17,000 people last year--psychologist David Greenfield found that 6 percent of Web users, about 6 million Americans, could be addicted.

In a new study of 1,500 companies asking about Internet abuse in the workplace, Greenfield found many employers have fired workers because of excessive time spent on online pornography, shopping, or gambling. Most companies have no policies on Internet abuse, and the few experts are in hot demand.

Internet-addiction centers are popping up across the country to help bored housewives obsessed with chat rooms, husbands having cyberaffairs, students hooked on online games, and day traders turning violent when their losses mount. "People say, 'I used to do drugs in high school. Now I don't need it. I've got the Internet,' " says Maressa Hecht Orzack, who founded Computer Addiction Services at Boston's McLean Hospital in 1996.

Skeptics say Internet misuse is usually a symptom of underlying psychiatric problems that need treatment. "It's not the technology which is addicting, it's the behavior," wrote psychologist John Grohol, a vocal skeptic. But others believe the Internet is creating new problems. "Online content is immediate, constant, uncensored, and unregulated," says Kimberly Young, one of the first psychologists to study Internet addiction and the author of Caught in the Net, the first book on the subject.

The Internet's interactive nature, anonymity, and convenience certainly make it easier for people to indulge in deviant or even criminal behavior. Former Disney executive Patrick Naughton, arrested in September for arranging to have sex with a 13-year-old girl he met online, pleaded not guilty, using an unusual defense argument that his actions were grounded in an online fantasy world. On December 16, a jury found him guilty of possessing child pornography but could not reach a verdict about the charges that he arranged to have sex with a minor.

Little research has been done on treatment. So Hilarie Cash and Jay Parker, co-founders of Internet/Computer Addiction Services in Redmond, Wash., are designing a study testing three treatment methods: traditional cognitive behavior therapy, a 12-step addiction-treatment program, and expressive arts therapy.

In the future, virtual reality and wireless access may make the Net more addictive. "Be really cautious about this technology," warns Parker. "It may not be so grand and good if it's not kept in balance."