Can Google Stay on Top of the Web?

As Bing, Facebook, Twitter, and less well-known upstarts nip at its heels, Google has hundreds of wizards racing to come up with smarter answersHigh on a wall of the lobby at Google’s sprawling headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., a projector displays a live sampling of the 2.5 billion searches made on Google every day. One after another, every second, they appear and just as quickly scroll out of sight: “Route 81 closed,” “cushing’s disease and canine diabetes,” “weather.” It’s a graphic reminder of how many people, some 720 million a month worldwide, rely on the search giant for links to information, entertainment, products, and just about everything else on their minds.Yet upstairs from the lobby on this bright September morning, two dozen Google search engineers and executives are gathered around a long conference table, not to celebrate their success but to wrestle with their failures. Headed by Udi Manber, one of nine Google vice-presidents for engineering, these are the leaders of a cadre of engineers and scientists known as the search quality group. They are the masters of the mysterious mathematical wizardry that has made Google one of the most powerful companies in the world. And every week, in a quixotic quest to provide the perfect answers, they meet to grill each other on how to improve Google’s search results.Better than anyone, these folks know that while Google may outperform other search engines, it still spits out plenty of clunkers — irrelevant sites or even occasionally no sites at all for a particular query. They also know that every disappointing result means someone is less likely to click on ads — the source of nearly all of Google’s $22 billion in revenues last year — and more likely to try another search engine. “If it turns out that somebody offers a better service than we do,” Manber, a former academic and executive at Yahoo! and, says with characteristic understatement, “that’s a concern.”

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