SAN FRANCISCO -- In five mind-blowing years, Google has blossomed from a nerdy college experiment to a mainstream sensation so ubiquitous that its goofy name is now synonymous with looking things up.
Millions of people turn to the Internet search engine every hour, trusting Google to speed through its index of 3 billion Web pages to find just about anything imaginable.
In a less than a second, Google routinely finds lost friends, merchandise, pop trivia, academic research, news, pornography and even references to God, to whom Google has been compared.
"It's hard to imagine a day when I'm not using Google for something," said Todd Goldman, a 37-year-old marketing executive in Silicon Valley. "I can almost always find what I'm looking for on the first or second page of results. It's almost like black magic."
Google's seemingly mystical powers inspires awe and dread -- reverence for the search engine's apparent omniscience, and fear about its Big Brother potential.
"It's way too powerful," said Daniel Brandt, a fierce Google critic who started a Web site to air his misgivings. "It's scary because if Google drops you, you could be out of business in no time."
Google's influence is perhaps best measured by the 200 million search requests it processes per day, up from 40 million just three years ago.
The steady growth has turned Google into one of the Internet's biggest success stories, and made the still relatively small company of 1,000 employees a target for some formidable foes. Both Yahoo! Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are searching for ways to steal Google's thunder in a showdown that could reshape the way people find their way around the Internet.
"Google has a lot of smart people who have built a great search engine, but there are a lot of other smart people out there looking for ways to make search engines even better," said Tara Calishain, author of "Google Hacks," a book about Google's hidden treasures.
Yahoo has committed nearly $2 billion to its Google counterattack. Microsoft is devoting an unspecified portion of its $49 billion war chest to building a better search engine.
Privately held Google isn't saying how it intends to protect its franchise. Company executives declined to be interviewed, preferring to focus on the Google mantra of "delivering the best search experience on the Internet."
Google apparently has ambitious growth plans. The company just signed a lease to move its Mountain View headquarters across town to a space five times larger -- a 500,000-square-foot complex now occupied by a fallen Silicon Valley star, Silicon Graphics Inc.
The push to topple Google is being driven by new marketing approaches that have turned search engines into profit machines.
Advertisers spend big for prominent listings in specially marked search results -- $2 billion this year, with robust growth forecast for the rest of this decade.
For now, at least, no one is better positioned to reap the rewards than Google.
Yahoo and Microsoft "are spending a ton of money to get something that Google has built from the ground up and has been fine-tuning for years," said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch, an industry newsletter. "That gives Google a great advantage."
Sullivan believes Microsoft might seek to buy Google rather than try to play catch-up. Neither Microsoft nor Google have expressed any public interest in a marriage.
With one of the world's most recognized brands, Google would likely demand a hefty price. No one will know for certain what Google is worth until it makes a long-awaited initial public offering of its stock -- something insiders say won't likely happen until next year at the earliest.
Much of Google's success stems from the intense loyalty of its users. While Yahoo and other Internet portals reduced their emphasis on search in the late 1990s, Google introduced a system that made it easier for people to find things quicker.
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