You won't find God if you go to Google

Search engines: It's still the world's window on the web, but now the browser that became a household name has two formidable rivals in the shape of the mighty Microsoft and a new Yahoo! Tim Webb reports
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The Independent Online

Type "God" into the Google search engine and 60 million results come up. The first is a link page for a music-downloading website that has been blocked. Not only is the site illegal but it has nothing to do with the search enquiry. This isn't much use for internet users looking for God - one of the most popular searches on the web.

Type "God" into the Google search engine and 60 million results come up. The first is a link page for a music-downloading website that has been blocked. Not only is the site illegal but it has nothing to do with the search enquiry. This isn't much use for internet users looking for God - one of the most popular searches on the web.

For now, Google, which is planning a float this year valuing it at up to $15bn (£8.2bn), is still the undisputed king of the search engines. Around 90 per cent of internet traffic is channelled through it. "To Google" has entered the lexicon of the English language. But rivals are plotting to knock it off its perch. Earlier this month, Microsoft admitted it is developing its own search engine, while Yahoo! launched a new service last month after ditching Google, which had previously handled its searches. Let battle commence.

Google's central London headquarters, just off Soho Square, are a throwback to the heady days of the dot-com boom. Dress codes are definitely out. Free smoothies (what else?) are in. Projected on to the wall in the reception area is a ticker that lists the search enquiries on Google in real time as users enter them. Omid Kordestani, senior vice-president of worldwide sales and field operations, and one of the founders of Google, epitomises the spirit. Exuding charm, the tanned California-educated American insists that Google does not take for granted its status as number one search engine. "If someone has a better product and we lose our edge, then we deserve to lose our position."

But he warned Microsoft to approach the search engine market carefully. Last week the European Union fined Microsoft $500m for anti-competitive behaviour in bundling its software with its Windows operating system. "We always welcome competition as long as it's healthy," says Mr Kordestani. "It should be a competitive effort on a product-by-product level. Bundling operating systems with other products will always be a concern. We hope that users won't be forced to use settings or applications they can't change. The industry will be looking at it [Microsoft's search engine plans]."

Robin Kellett, shopping and search business manager at Microsoft, would not confirm when the company planned to launch its search engine, which it has been developing for the past year. "There are good search engines out there but we feel we could do better," he says.

In fact, the timing is right for a launch to capitalise on the growing dissatisfaction with Goo-gle among its users. Once it was seen as the embodiment of the free-thinking internet age, providing access to good-quality, non-commercially orientated information on the web. Now, increasingly, Google plays host to commercially driven spam websites that have little or no content of their own, and are hardly more than link pages to sister sites. The "God" search is indicative of the deteriorating standards of the service, say critics.

In many ways, these spam websites are holding Google hostage. Website publishers are adept at manipulating searches so their sites are listed high up in the results, even though their content may be poor. Web publishers estimate that to get a high ranking, around 7 per cent of their site's content needs to match the search phrase entered on Google. So they use these phrases as often as possible. For example, if a user types in "football boots" on Google, the top results will be mail-order websites run by middle men, rather than high street retailers, the boot manufacturers themselves or general web pages about football boots. These sites are at the top of the list not because they have the most relevant content, but because they are best at manipulating the search results.

Google has responded to this criticism by frequently changing the algo-rithm (the process by which search engines trawl billions of web pages for search matches) to make it harder to manipulate. But John Russell, director of inogen.co.uk, a web development company specialising in building websites for small businesses, says: "These changes are usually at the expense of genuinely good content. The bad guys can keep up, leaving smaller sites run by less savvy developers bewildered because a client's website has just lost 50 per cent of its traffic overnight."

Google does not charge websites to register, unlike some other search engines, which make companies pay for a top ranking. Google earns its $1bn a year advertising revenues from the related web pages (or adwords) on the right-hand side of the search page. Often they are more relevant for the user than the search results themselves. Cynics suggest this is the way Google wants it. Mr Russell adds: "Some people believe that this reduction in relevancy suits Google anyway. More sites are choosing to pay for Google's adwords in order to gain better exposure."

Yahoo!'s new search engine brings up a mix of paid and not-paid-for sites depending on the search. For a search that has no obvious commercial association (for example, "American constitution"), all the results will be from sites that have registered for free. Search for "flowers", however, and the top five listings are paid-for "sponsor results". Website publishers can bid online to buy a higher ranking than competitors. Yahoo! says this mix ensures the most relevant content for the user.

As for Google's float plans, Mr Kor-destani remains cautious. "We are looking at when it's a right time," he says. It would make him, and the other founders, very rich men. But Google's future does not seem as secure as it once was. It is still the best search engine in town, but it should not delay its float too long before Microsoft and Yahoo! get in on the act.

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