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Is Google turning into Microsoft?

Privately backed Google has lately conjured up some Microsoft-like comparisons, but its recent moves, including the release of its ``Search by Location,'' suggest its culture remains far removed from the ``evil empire.''

Why lump Google in with Microsoft?

First, Google has reached near-monopoly -- or at least oligopoly -- status as a search engine. Some observers fear their privacy is being violated: too much personal information culled about them by one company. Some advertisers complain about a lack of transparency in Google's search algorithms, which dictate the ranking of Web pages on its results page. Individuals might wonder about this, too.

One reason Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus, says he helped back Nutch, an open-source alternative to Google, is because Google is ``very guarded about how it works.''

He bemoans that businesses are trying to manipulate Google, attempting for example to boost their ranking by creating bogus links to their sites. (Google uses the quality and number of links, among other things, to measure relevance.)

Nutch will make search-result rankings transparent. The project will be open for all developers to help modify or change. ``I hope their honeymoon phase goes on for a long time,'' Kapor says of Google. ``But at some point they're going to go public, and they're subject to public markets. There will be enormous pressures to do things to make money.''

Kapor says Nutch could, in the distant future, take on Google, just like the open-source operating system Linux now poses a challenge to Microsoft.

Granted, there might be good reasons for Google's secrecy -- to stave off competition. There also appears to be an unending commitment by Google to make sure search results -- and service enhancements -- stay relevant to the user. Which is why users keep coming back. All it takes for a user to switch search engines, co-founder Sergey Brin points out, is to type in the name of another search engine.

Take Google's unveiling Monday of its ``Search by Location'' service. Still in a test mode (at, it lets you type in your search term, along with address or ZIP code. Presto: Google's relevant local links.

There are glitches. As a British Web site pointed out Wednesday, type in ``sex'' and ``New York,'' and Google produces a list of convicted sex offenders based in Ohio. (We typed in ``sex'' and ``San Francisco'' and results were more on point.)

Faced with the tough challenge of providing decent local results, Google could have thrown in the towel, and let local advertisers co-opt it with the usual pay-to-play model. Money might have skewed the results, but at least they might have been more relevant than the bizarre results currently churned out. It's to Google's credit that it's holding true to its mission.

(This contrasts with Overture -- the search company that Yahoo acquired -- which launched its own local search demo several weeks ago. It provided results from local advertisers who paid for the listing. The same goes for Yahoo's shopping search, where many results list vendors who paid for their listings, ignoring equally relevant advertisers.)

Another Microsoft comparison was made by Brin himself: At a San Jose search engine conference last month, he suggested Microsoft is a model worth emulating when it comes to a heady initial public offering: ``Other companies have built a culture where they escape relatively unscathed,'' he said. ``Look at Microsoft.''

In fact, comparisons with Microsoft's culture are more apt when referring to Google's passion for technology. Like Microsoft, Google in its early years has been dismissive of the marketing culture embodied by eager-beaver MBAs. Even Kapor admits that Google has built a culture of ``technical excellence.'' This passion is what John Doerr, venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and major backer of Google, says distinguishes the great tech companies in the valley from the also-rans.

Google, he said, is largely populated by missionaries. ``Mercenaries have a lust for making money, full stop,'' Doerr explains. ``Missionaries lust for making meaning, and money also. It's the difference between drive and a paranoia, which the mercenaries have plenty of, and passion, which the missionaries have,'' he says. ``It's the difference between obsessing on financial statements, and obsessing on the mission and value statements.''

Wonkishness often rules at Google meetings. Says Doerr: ``I'm just as likely to find them in a meeting talking about how we can get clean water to the world, or innovate power technologies to halve global emissions, or run distributed simulations of protein-folding problems on willing Google customers' computers during their spare time -- as about how we can keep enhancing the quality of search.''

Doerr too makes comparisons with Microsoft: ``You've got to be really smart. Like Microsoft, its hard to get hired at Google.''

PS: Doerr did not respond to a request for comment about recent rumors that Google might buy up Friendster, the dating Web site that allows friends to hook up with friends of their friends. But someone else high in the hierarchy at Google, who requested anonymity, said he was unaware of any such plans -- at least for now.


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