Google IPO to unleash dollars, and questions

April 28, 2004|By JAY HANCOCK

DID YOU think Microsoft spawned fear, envy, loathing, fascination and paranoia? Get ready to go Google-gaga.

The secretive and mighty Google Inc. is expected to announce its initial public stock sale tomorrow, inaugurating new levels of wealth and ambition for the California-based search engine company.

Stock market joy will be the initial response. But Google is so pervasive and essential that its public-ownership debut can also be guaranteed to amplify questions about its financial, political and social influence.

Like Microsoft, Google makes what is essentially a software utility. But whereas Microsoft's Windows operating system is more or less confined to the box on your desk, Google is everywhere.

Google is a library and a marketplace, an instrument of democracy and commerce, the long-sought primary portal. Windows is a toaster.

Google is the de facto editor of the World Wide Web, with the power to boost, bury or block anything on it. True, you don't have to use Google. But you do. To the tune of 200 million searches a day.

Google is a time machine, able to summon Web pages according to date. With its 100,000 computer servers, Google is a spy and a mind reader, bringing eerily relevant ads to go with your searches and now even your e-mail. Google is the Alexandrian library of the 600s, the CBS Evening News of the 1960s and the Wal-Mart of the 2000s.

And now it will report to Wall Street. "We have built a large-scale search engine which addresses many of the problems of existing systems," Stanford grad students Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page wrote in their 1997 paper that described Google.

For academic understatement, that competes with James Watson's and Francis Crick's 1953 comment about the form of DNA, which they had just discovered: "This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest."

Google already takes in $1 billion in annual revenue, according to industry reports. Brin and Page will become multibillion- aires when Google goes public. The trade press thinks the company might be worth $30 billion after the stock flotation.

And many other dollars - much of the Internet economy, in fact - ride on how Google organizes and conducts itself.

Because a good Google-search showing can mean millions in online revenue, and because Google ranks pages according to links from other sites, links have become hot commodities, bought and sold like wheat futures.

Those advertising links on your favorite sites? Often as not, they're there more to help the pages do well in Google searches than to draw visitors directly.

Phoenix-based, for example, peddles connections on other people's pages for anywhere from $20 to several hundred dollars per month per link.

"We have people who are No. 1 [in search rankings] for some of the hardest search terms, that bring them in millions of dollars a month, and how they got there was by buying our text links," says Textlinkbrokers partner Rob Lolmaugh.

This was not the vision of Google's founders, who wrote their code for pages presumably linked according to inherent interest and quality, not the highest bidder. But the gray market in links is only one of Google's challenges.

"Don't be evil," is Google's motto, but it's hard to be totally virtuous when a great Google search-rank is more important than flat abs, firm buns and a house on the Outer Banks.

It's even harder when you start creating political waves and raising privacy concerns. Google sees itself as a reference service, not a publisher, but it has started getting in trouble for offensive sites that surface in its searches. Google itself advertises dubious sites; look for Of Human Bondage, and the Somerset Maugham novel isn't the only thing that turns up.

And as a warehouse for data on hundreds of millions of people gleaned from inside and outside their computers, Google gives privacy advocates the willies. Now the company must deal with all these concerns - confidentiality, First Amendment issues, search integrity - and simultaneously keep public shareholders happy.

"The medium is the message," Marshall McLuhan said of television 40 years ago. What is the message of this medium?

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