Why Googling Instead of Yahooing?

Recently, both Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary conferred on Google what many would consider a high honor. “To google” is no longer slang; it’s now an official word in the dictionary. But why did Google receive this distinction rather than some other search company? We take a look at some of the news and stories surrounding the search engine to try to answer that question.

You never hear anybody say they’re going to “yahoo” or “altavista” something. Both of these search engines have been around longer than Google, so you’d think they’d have a better chance of becoming words. Indeed, compared with the years listed for first usage of the other words Merriam-Webster is including this year, google is a newcomer. It dates to 2001, while the others date to the 1990s at the earliest. One of them – “wave pool” – is downright old in comparison, with a first usage dating to 1977. Dictionaries are inherently conservative, so why are they adopting “google,” and why so fast?

One obvious reason might be Google’s long shadow. It fields a more than respectable majority of the searches conducted throughout the world – even in languages other than English. Deutsche Welle noted that 70 percent of Germans go to Google first when looking for information online. This has some academics worried. Marcel Machill, a journalism professor at the Liepzig and Dortmund universities, noted that “In the classic media sector this kind of concentration would be unthinkable…It is important not to let this power develop unobserved.”

Google’s long shadow makes others call for government intervention. Norbert Schneider, director of the North Rhine Westphalia state media institute, describes Google’s self-imposed filtering of search results to comply with a country’s local laws as a “weak regulation without any sanctions,” and thinks the government needs to step in to make sure users understand the power of search engines. As for Machill, he thinks a European search engine, started with public funds, is needed to counter balance the pre-eminence of Google (and other US search engines).

Certainly its reach – which is enough to scare many people – is one reason Google became a verb. And the controversy surrounding the search engine probably helps too. Let’s take a brief look at what Google has done to build up its power and reach.

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With $9 billion in cash and plans to spend more than $1.5 billion this year on operations centers and technology, Google can afford the best hardware around. But the company hasn’t strayed that far from its roots as a graduate-school project growing in a garage. To this day, most of Google’s servers are custom-built from relatively low-cost hardware.

It was originally a cost-saving move, and even now it saves Google quite a bit of money to build its own. The servers put together by the search engine are designed to use less electricity than traditional machines; the money can really add up when scaled to hundreds of thousands of servers. Google had to cut corners somewhere, though, and, at least for the initial network, it was in reliability. Google’s entire network, in fact, was designed by Larry Page based on the assumption that parts would fail regularly. Hence, Google’s computer racks really are held together with Velcro. Urs Holzle, Google’s senior vice president for operations, has observed that “Nobody builds servers as unreliably as we do.”

What reliability Google’s network may lack in hardware, it makes up for in software. The company’s home-brewed software tools make the most of its distributed network. For example, some of them make it easier to manage parallel processing. Stephen E. Arnold, author of a book about Google’s technology (The Google Legacy), notes that one of the problems with parallel processing is simply getting it to work correctly. “If you talk to guys who work in massively parallel computing operations, as much as 30 percent of their coding time is spent trying to figure out how to get the thing to run.” Google, on the other hand, “has figured out how they can reduce a lot of the hassle and work of creating parallel applications.”

Google has come up with other ways to make the most of its hardware, and accommodate its relative unreliability. For instance, software called the Google File System copies data to several places. This means when one server fails, it doesn’t need to panic about losing the data. It also means that Google doesn’t have to make regular data backups in the same way as many other companies. Now that’s taking lemons and making lemonade!

Google can’t use inexpensive, relatively unreliable servers forever, though. It might work for search, but with email (Gmail) and now ecommerce (Google Checkout) going through the machines, users of its services will get justifiably angry if any of their precious data is lost. Even there, Google is looking to keep costs down. It is one of Advanced Micro Devices’ largest customers, and reportedly favors the power-sparing Opteron chip.

Google is even doing business with Sun. Sun’s systems are expensive but reliable, and the firm recently created a chip that is particularly efficient in its use of electricity. That could add up to a real monetary savings for Google when spread across enough machines.

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With this kind of self-sufficient, economic attitude, Google has been able to save money and plow that savings into research and development. It’s no wonder that other companies see Google’s services as a threat. Take Google Checkout, for instance. Rumored for more than a year, it finally came out in late June, and was widely hailed as a PayPal-killer. Its power seemed to be confirmed when online auction leader eBay, who owns PayPal, stated its refusal to accept payments made from Google Checkout.

eBay claims its reason for not accepting the service has nothing to do with the rivalry between the two companies. eBay spokesperson Catherine England insisted that “One of those criteria for inclusion [as a payment option on eBay] is having a proven track record for service, and we just don’t have that information yet with Google Checkout.” Interestingly, the way Google Checkout is set up, PayPal could become a payment option of the service.

But should PayPal or eBay actually be worried? Google is a verb in the dictionary now, yes, but with a very specific meaning – and that meaning is tied to search, not auctions or ecommerce. Google products and services are not market leaders in any other field, but that doesn’t prevent analysts and competitors from shivering every time it delivers something new. Venture investor Paul S. Kedrosky notes that “People give Google the victory in the beginning and don’t show up later to notice that things didn’t go anywhere.”

Consider Google Talk, Gmail, and Google Finance. These Google services have all been out for months. But Google Talk ranks tenth among instant messaging services, well behind AIM and MSN Messenger. Gmail is used by only 25 percent as many people who use Yahoo and Microsoft’s email services. As for Google Finance, it isn’t even in the top 30 for finance sites, judged by the frequency of visits (according to Hitwise). The top spot there is still held by market leader Yahoo Finance.

The reasons for Google’s inability to dominate markets other than search could fill another article. They’re not really important for the purposes of this one. What is worth observing, though, is that the relatively few striking successes Google has had outside of search, by contrast, illustrate just how good Google is at its core business. They show, after all, that Google is not predominantly an IM service, or an email company, or a pick-your-product-or-service company; it’s a search engine, plain and simple.

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Google may not be as strong in other areas as it is in search, but its strength in search is unquestionable. That’s why people started saying “to google” rather than “to search,” and it’s that widespread usage that Merriam-Webster acknowledged when it defined “google” as “to use the Google search engine to obtain information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web.” Thomas Pitoniak, the associate editor and composition manager for Merriam-Webster, explained as much to CNET News.com when he said that “A noun turns into a verb very often. Google is a unique case. Because they have achieved so much prominence in the world of search, people have been using the word google as a generic verb now.”

Google of course is also strong in search advertising, and Merrill Lynch thinks that Google Checkout will help that strength. Remember, when Google introduced the system, it awarded Google Checkout merchants a discount on transaction fees based on how much they spent on AdWords. Google Checkout will supposedly have other benefits, such as decreasing shopping cart abandonment (and thus increasing conversions), as well as allowing Google to better target ads because it will gain broad information about users’ buying habits.

It’s no wonder, then, that Merrill Lynch revised its second-quarter revenue and profit estimates for the search engine well ahead of the company’s releasing its Q2 results. It expected Google’s revenue to total $1.64 billion, up about $50 million from its previous estimate. Merrill Lynch also expected profits to reach $2.18 a share, a rise of $.08 a share. In fact, Google’s revenues reached $2.4 billion, and earnings per share was either $2.33 or $2.39, depending on whether you’re looking at diluted or basic figures.

So Google’s technological and economic might has helped change our language. Will it also change our laws? The company has been embroiled in court battles involving copyright issues, unfavorably came to the notice of Capitol Hill thanks to its self-censorship regarding China, and is now vehemently fighting what could be a losing battle to prevent telecom companies from creating a bandwidth-based tiered pricing system on the Internet. Time will tell whether the search engine will affect our lives even more deeply – or even if we’ll still be googling 50 years from now.

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