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As Google’s Growth Falters, Microsoft Could Regain Momentum
By 24/7 Wall St. Wednesday, Apr. 01, 2009People sit under a Google logoitted.
JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty
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Facebook Yahoo! BuzzTwitter Linkedin Permalink Reprints Related Most of the recent news about Google (GOOG) has been bad. Online advertising posted a slow fourth quarter. That unexpectedly included both display ads and search marketing which has made Google one of the fastest growing large companies in America. Several Wall St. analysts have commented that Google’s search revenue’s rate of increase flattened out in January and February. Since the consensus among experts who cover the company is that revenue will rise 11% in the first quarter, a flat quarter would be devastating.

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One of the things that Wall St. hates about Google is that it does one thing better than any other company in the world, but that is all it does. Google Chrome browser, Google Earth, Google Maps, and YouTube have really made much money. Some of the features have not produced any revenue at all. If its search operation falters, Google’s run as the hottest tech company in the world could be over. (See pictures of Google Earth.)

At this point, Google is a $22 billion company. If the search business drops to a growth rate of 10% a year, it will take three years for Google’s sales to get to $30 billion. From the time Microsoft (MSFT) hit $22 billion in sales in 2000, it took the company less than three years to get to the $30 billion plateau. Then from 2002 to 2008, Microsoft’s sales doubled. The software business not only grew. Until recently, it grew quickly. (See pictures of Bill Gates.)

The assumption about Google’s prospects is that the search company is the next Microsoft. Twenty years ago, Microsoft had the hot hand. Sales of Windows and the company’s business and server software were stunning. The margins on some of Microsoft’s software franchises were over 70%. Then the hyper-growth stopped as the company’s market penetration of PCs and servers reached a saturation point. Microsoft’s stock never saw the level it hit in 2000 again. Without lucrative stock options, employees who wanted to make it rich moved to start-ups. The people who had been at the company thirty years were already rich. Many of them retired.

About seven years after Microsoft’s stock hit an all-time high, Google traded at $747, its peak. It now changes hands at $348, and if the company’s sales can only grow at 10% or 15%, the stock is not going back above $700, ever. The myth about companies like Microsoft and Google is that what they do is so important to business and consumers and so pervasive that the growth curve never flattens out. It does flatten at every company. No exceptions.

The press coverage of Google this week included a few pathetic announcements. Disney (DIS) will put some of its premium content on Google’s YouTube. That should be good for $10 million in revenue a year. Google is starting a $100 million venture capital arm which will make it the 1,000th largest venture operation in the world. In other words, it will not be managing enough venture money to matter. Then word came out that Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) might use Google’s operating system in some of its netbooks instead of Microsoft Windows. The important word in that report is “might.” The news that Google is adding thousands of employees a quarter and that the founders have bought a 747 or an aircraft carrier probably hit a high point two years ago.

Saying that Google is doing poorly is not the same as saying that Microsoft is doing well. What matters to Microsoft is that Google becomes less of a threat each day as it fails in its diversification attempts. Google’s cash flow does not continue to give it an almost limitless capital arsenal. Google has to consider cutting people in areas which will never be profitable. The entire ethos at Google is in the process of changing. Microsoft may be in third place in the search business, but it is in first place in software, which is still the larger industry.

Investors still ask Microsoft why it is in the video game business. There is not any reasonable answer. It is an awful business with poor margins. It has nothing to do with selling Windows. There may have been some idea that being in the hardware business would help the software business, but, if so, that idea didn’t work out a long time ago.

With the perceived playing field that Microsoft and Google operate on a bit more level now, they can race after the one market that could be substantial for either one or both of them, which is providing software and search on mobile devices. The smartphone, which is really a PC for the pocket, is part of the one-billion-units-per-year-in-sales handset industry. Providing the operating software and other key components for wireless devices is almost certainly the next big thing for tech companies from Google to Yahoo (YHOO) to Microsoft to Adobe (ADBE). Trying to milk more money out of the PC gets harder and harder. For the largest companies in the industry, it has become a zero sum game. (See pictures of the 50 best websites of 2008.)

For Google and Microsoft, the best days are over, unless one can dominate the handset world the way it did the universe of computers.

— Douglas A. McIntyre
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How to Use the New Google Web Search RSS Feeds

Written by Marshall Kirkpatrick / October 30, 2008 11:31 AM / 7 Comments


Google’s been the lone hold out among major search engines on RSS but the company quietly enabled feeds for web search results this week. The offering is pretty limited and frustrating, you have to go through Google Alerts to get an obscure RSS URL, but we offer a tutorial and some strategic advice in this post.

Web search RSS is useful for being alerted whenever search results for your keywords or link have changed; subscribing to at least a few searches will let you know when Google users are seeing something new in the first few pages of search results for your company name, for example.

How to Get the Feeds

All the other major search engines make it really easy to grab a feed for any web search, but Google is probably concerned about spammers finding bizarre and unscrupulous uses for its feeds. We’re all inconvenienced as a result.

To get a feed for a Google search you have to go to the web page for Google Alerts and set up an alert for your search. You can enter most queries here, including site: queries. (site:http://readwriteweb.com semantic for example.) You should select “web” instead of the default “comprehensive” if you’re just interested in tracking web search results.

GoogleRSS2.jpg

“Feed” isn’t an option in the initial drop down menu of delivery options, you’ve got to select email first. After you’ve done that, look at your collection of alerts and click to edit the one you want by RSS. At this point “feed” is an option in the drop down menu. Select it and you’ll be shown an RSS URL. Throw that puppy in your favorite feed reader and you’re ready to rock and roll.

The feed will deliver any new links that show up in the top 20 search results for your query. That’s pretty limited, but most people don’t look beyond the first 20 results anyway. That means that this is good for high-level reputation tracking but not very good for discovery of new, more obscure pages of interest.

The RSS URLs that Google gives you are based on an arbitrary number and don’t contain the text characters of your query. That means you can’t build more feeds by simply editing the URLs, you have to go back in through Alerts and repeat the proccess for every feed of interest.

Update: One day after we wrote this post, the official Google Blog just announced the availability of feed alerts as well.

More Advanced Options

Here’s how we’re using the new Google search feeds. We’ve grabbed feed URLs for searches for A. our names, B. our company name, C. our company URL and (just for fun) one for each of those three items without the other two. For example: “Richard MacManus” -readwriteweb -http://readwriteweb.com.

That gave us a small pile of feeds, which we then ran through our favorite RSS splicing and deduplication service (we used Yahoo Pipes but if you’re not comfortable with Pipes then Feed.informer.com is really easy to use). We spliced all these feeds together, filtered for duplicates and then threw the resulting feed into our highest priority feed reading system.

Pipes_ editing _RWW Google Websearch Tracking_.jpg

Now we can track our high level reputations constantly, without being paranoid about it. We might do this for concept searches as well so that if someone new starts ranking really high for topics we specialize in (semantic web, RSS) then we’ll know about them and never look ignorant at parties.

If we were interested in getting an RSS feed for Google web search for discovery, more than just reputation tracking, we might do an “advanced search,” increase the results displayed from 10 to 100 and then use Dapper.net to scrape a feed of results from that page.

All of this is more complicated than it ought to be, but once you set up even the most basic feed options then you don’t have to think about it again. Though it isn’t perfect, we do appreciate Google making these feeds available.

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Search War: Yahoo! Opens Its Search Engine to Attack Google With An Army of Verticals

Written by Marshall Kirkpatrick / July 9, 2008 9:00 PM / 15 Comments


BossYahoo! is taking a bold step tonight: opening up its index and search engine to any outside developers who want to incorporate Yahoo! Search’s content and functionality into search engines on their own sites. The company that sees just over 20% of the searches performed each day believes that the new program, called BOSS (Build Your Own Search Service), could create a cadre of small search engines that in aggregate will outstrip their own market share and leave Google with less than 50% of the search market.

It’s an ambitious and exciting idea. It could also become very profitable when Yahoo! later enables the inclusion of Yahoo! search ads on sites using the BOSS APIs. BOSS will include access to Yahoo! web, news and image searches.

Partner Relationships

Websites wishing to leverage the BOSS APIs will be allowed to can blend in their own ranking input and change the presentation of results. There are no requirements for attribution to Yahoo! and there’s no limit on the number of queries that can be performed.

At launch Yahoo! BOSS will see live integrations with at least three other companies. Hakia will integrate their semantic parsing with the Yahoo! index and search, social browser plug-in Me.dium will use the data it’s collected to offer a social search tied to the Yahoo! index, and real-time sentiment search engine Summize was included in the BOSS demo – augmenting Yahoo News search results with related Twitter messages.

More extensive customization and integration with large media companies will be performed with assistance from Yahoo! and ad-free access to the APIs will be made available to the Computer Science departments of academic institutions.

mediumBOSS.jpgMe.dium captures 20m URLs daily and will use BOSS to show social relevance in addition to link-weight in search. 

Does Anyone Really Care About Niche Vertical Search Engines?

We asked Yahoo! just that, although we believe that alternative search engines can be pretty exciting. None the less, we think it’s a valid question.

Senior Director of the Open Search Platform, Bill Michels told us that niche search engines often aren’t very good because they have access to a very limited index of content. It’s expensive to index the whole web. Likewise, Michels said that there are a substantial number of large organizations that have a huge amount of content but don’t have world-class search technology.

In both cases, Yahoo! BOSS is intended to level the playing field and blow the Big 3 wide open. We agree that it’s very exciting to imagine thousands of new Yahoo! powered niche search engines proliferating. Could Yahoo! plus the respective strengths and communities of all these new players challenge Google? We think they could.

<!–HakiaBOSS.jpg
Hakia will parse the Yahoo! index for semantic meaning and data type.–>

What’s Not Included?

The BOSS APIs are in beta for now, so they may be expanded with time – but for now there are still a few crown jewels in the company’s plans that won’t be opened up. We asked about Yahoo’s indexing of the semantic web and were told that would not be a part of BOSS. We asked about the Inbox 2.0 strategy and the company’s plans to rewire for social graph and data portability paradigms. We were told that those were “other programs.”

We hope that there’s not a fundamental disconnect there that will lead to lost opportunities and a lack of focus. It is clear, though, that BOSS falls well within the company’s overall technical strategy of openness. When it comes to web standards, openness and support for the ecosystem of innovation – there may be no other major vendor online as strong as Yahoo! is today. These are times of openness, where some believe that no single vendor’s technology and genius alone can match the creativity of an empowered open market of developers. Yahoo! is positioning itself as leader of this movement.

Let’s see what they can do with an army of Yahoo! powered search engines. Let the games begin!

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Is Google a Semantic Search Engine?

Written by Guest Author / March 26, 2007 1:00 PM / 35 Comments


Written by Phill Midwinter, a search engineer from the UK. This is a great follow-up to our article last Friday, Hakia Takes On Google With Semantic Technologies.

What is a Semantic Engine?

Semantics are said to be ‚Äòthe next big thing‚Äô in search engine technology. We technology bloggers routinely drum up articles about it and sell it to you, the adoring masses, as a product that will change your web experience forever. Problem is, we often forget to tell you exactly what semantics are – we just get so excited. So let’s explore this…

Wikipedia says:

‚ÄúSemantics (Greek semantikos, giving signs, significant, symptomatic, from sema, sign) refers to the aspects of meaning that are expressed in a language, code, or other form of representation. Semantics is contrasted with two other aspects of meaningful expression, namely, syntax, the construction of complex signs from simpler signs, and pragmatics, the practical use of signs by agents or communities of interpretation in particular circumstances and contexts. By the usual convention that calls a study or a theory by the name of its subject matter, semantics may also denote the theoretical study of meaning in systems of signs.‚Ä?

…which is absolutely no help.

Semantics as it relates to our topic, search engines, actually covers a few closely related fields. In this instance what we are looking at deciphering (as a basic example) is whether a computer can discern if there is a link between two words, such as cat and dog. You and I both know that cats and dogs are common household pets, and can be categorized as such. The human brain seems to comprehend this easily, but for a computer it is a much more complex task and one I won‚Äôt go into here – because it would most likely bore you.

If we take as read then, that the search engine now has semantic functionality, how does that enable it to refine its search capability?

  • It can automatically place pages into dynamic categories, or tag them without human intervention. Knowing what topic a page relates to is invaluable for returning relevant results.
  • It can offer related topics and keywords to help you narrow your search successfully. With a keyword like sport the engine would offer you a list of sports perhaps as well as sports related news and blogs.
  • Instead of offering you the related keywords, the engine can directly incorporate them back into the search with less weight than the user inputted ones. It‚Äôs still contested as to whether this will produce better results or just more varied ones.
  • If the engine uses statistical analysis to retrieve it‚Äôs semantic matches to a keyword (as Google is likely to do) then its likely that keywords currently associated with hot news topics will bring those in as well. For example, using my engine to search for the keyword police, brought up peerages (relating to the uk‚Äôs cash for honors scandal recently).

So, according to me:

‚ÄúA semantic search engine is a search engine that takes the sense of a word as a factor in its ranking algorithm or offers the user a choice as to the sense of a word or phrase.‚Ä?

This is not in line with the purists of what is known as ‘The Semantic Web’, who believe that for some reason we should spend all our time tagging documents, pages and images to make them acceptable for a computer to read. Well, I’m sorry but I’m not going to waste my time tagging when a computer is able to derive context and do it for me. I may have offended Tim Berners Lee by saying this, but as the creator of the Web he should know better.

How does Google match up?

Until extremely recently, Google‚Äôs semantic technology (which they‚Äôve had now for quite a while) was limited to matching those adsense blocks to your website‚Äôs content. This is neat, and a good practical example of the technology – but not relevant to their core search product. However if you make a single keyword search today, chances are you may spot a block like this at the bottom of your results page:

This is more or less exactly what I was just writing about. They’re offering you alternatives based upon your initial search, which in this case was obviously for citizen. Citizen is a bank, a watchmaker and (if I’m not mistaken) it means you’re a member of a country or something. This is the first clear example of Google employing a semantic engine that works by analyzing the context of words in their index and returning likely matches for sense.

Some of you may be wondering why they aren’t doing this for multiple keyword phrases, which I can take a guess at from some of my own work. Analyzing the context of a word statistically is intensive and slow; and if you try and analyze two, you slow the process further and so on. It is likely they have problems doing so for more than one keyword currently, and Google as ever is cautious about changing their interface too radically too quickly. This implementation of semantics gives hope that they haven’t adopted the purist view of ‘The Semantic Web’ where everything is tagged and filed neatly into nice little packages.

Google is all too aware of the following very large problems with that idea:

  • Users are stupid.
  • Users are lazy.
  • Redefining the way they‚Äôve indexed what is assumed to be petabytes of data would require them to effectively start again.
  • It‚Äôs not as powerful or dynamic.

How Google can utilize Semantic technologies

It’s my belief that Google will increasingly tie this technology into their core search experience as it improves in speed and reliability. It has some phenomenally powerful uses and I’ve taken the liberty of laying out a few of my suggestions on where they can go with this:

Self aware pages

  • Tagging pages with keywords has always been used on the internet to let search engines know what kind content the page contains.
  • Using a Google API we can generate the necessary keywords on the fly as the page loads. This cuts out a large amount of work for SEO.
  • A Google API enabled engine wouldn‚Äôt even need to look at these keywords, it could generate them itself.
  • Not only a page can be self aware these days, people tag everything – including links. The Google API could conceivably be used to tag every single word on a page, creating a page that covers every single keyword possibility. This is overkill – but a demonstration of the power available.

Narrow Search

  • When you begin a search, you enter just one or two keywords in the topic you‚Äôre interested in.
  • Related keywords appear, which you can then select from to target your search and remove any doubts about dual meanings of a word for example.
  • This step repeats every time you search, also possible is opinionated search.

Opinionated Search

  • Because of the way Google statistically finds the senses of keywords from the mass of pages in its index, what in fact it finds is the majority opinion from those pages of what the sense of a word is.
  • At the base level, you can select from the average opinion of related keywords and subjects from its entire index.
  • You can find the opinion at other levels as well though, and this is where the power comes in in terms of really targeting what the user is looking for quickly and efficiently. All the following mean that this is the first true example of social search:
    • Find the opinion over a range of dates, good for current events, modern history, changes in trends.
    • Find the opinion over areas of geography, or by domain extension (.co.uk, .com).
    • Find the opinion over a certain group of websites, or just one website in particular – compare that with another site.
    • Find the opinion not only over the above things but also subjects, topics, social and religious groups.
    • At the most ridiculous example level, you could even find what topics 18 year olds on myspace living in Leeds most talk about – but that I could probably guess. The point is that this is targeting demographics on a really unprecedented level.
  • Add the sites or web pages to your personal profile that you think most closely reflect your opinions, this data can then be taken into account in all future searches returning greater personal relevancy.

Conclusion

Google is using semantic technology, but is not yet a fully fledged semantic search engine. It does not use NLP (Natural Language Processing), but this is not a barrier to producing some truly web changing technology with a bit of thought and originality. NLP may well be (I hate myself for writing this) web 4.0 and semantics is web 3.0 Рthey are in fact different enough to be classified as such in my eyes and the technology Hakia is developing is certainly markedly distinct from Google’s semantic efforts.

There are barriers that Google needs to overcome… is it capable of becoming fully semantic without modifying it‚Äôs index too drastically; can Google continue to keep the results simple and navigable for its varied user base? Most importantly, does Google intend to become a fully semantic search engine and to do so within a timescale that won‚Äôt damage their position and reputation? I like to think that although the dragon is sleeping, that doesn‚Äôt mean it‚Äôs not dreaming!

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Deconstructing Real Google Searches: Why Powerset Matters

Written by Guest Author / January 9, 2008 1:07 AM / 13 Comments


This is a guest post by Nitin Karandikar, author of the Software Abstractions blog.

Recently I was looking at the log files for my blog, as I regularly do, and I was suddenly struck by the variety of search queries in Google from which users were being referred to my posts. I write often about the different varieties of search – including vertical search, parametric search, semantic search, and so on – so users with queries about search often land on my blog. But do they always find what they’re looking for?

All the major search engines currently rely on the proximity of keywords and search terms to match results. But that approach can be misleading, causing the search engine to systematically produce incorrect results under certain conditions.

To demonstrate, let us take a look at three general use cases.

[Note: The examples given below are all drawn from Google. To be fair, all the major search engines use similar algorithms, and all suffer from similar problems. For its part, Google handles billions of queries every day, usually very competently. As the reigning market leader, though, Google is the obvious target – it goes with the territory!]

1. Difficulty in Finding Long Tail Results

Take Britney Spears. Given the current popularity of articles, news, pictures, and videos of the superstar singer, the results for practically any query with the word “spears” in it will be loaded with matches about her – especially if the search involves television or entertainment in any way.

Let’s say you’re watching the movie Zulu and you start wondering what material the large spears that all the extras are waving about are made of. So, you go to Google and type in “movie spears material” – this is an obviously insufficient description, as the screen shot below shows.

What happens if you expand on the query further – say: “what are movie spears made out of?” – does it help?

The general issue here is that articles about very popular subjects accumulate high levels of PageRank and then totally overwhelm long tail results. This makes it very difficult for a user to find information about unusual topics that happen to lie near these subjects (at least based on keywords).

2. Keyword Ordering

Since the major search engines focus only on the proximity of keywords without context, a user search that’s similar to a popular concept gets swamped with those results, even if the order of keywords in the query has been reversed. For example, a tragic occurrence that’s common in modern life is that of a bicycle getting hit by a car. Much less common is the possibility of a car getting hit by a bicycle, although it does happen. How would you search for the latter? Try typing “car hit by bicycle” into Google; here’s a screen shot of what you get. [Note the third result, which is actually relevant to this search!]

3. Keyword Relationships

Since the major search engines focus only on the keywords in the search phrase, all sense of the relationship between the search terms is lost. For example, users commonly change the meaning of search terms by using negations and prepositions; it is also fairly common to look for the less common members of a set.

This takes us into the realm of natural language processing (NLP). Without NLP, the nuances of these query modifications are totally invisible to the search algorithms.

For example, a query such as “Famous science fiction writers other than Isaac Asimov” is doomed to failure. A screen shot of this search in Google is presented below. Most of the returned results are about Isaac Asimov, even when the user is explicitly trying to exclude him from the list of authors found.

All of the searches shown above look like gimmicks – queries designed intentionally to mislead Google’s search algorithms. And in a sense, they are; these specific queries can be easily fixed by tweaking the search engine. Nevertheless, they do point to a real need: the value of understanding the meaning behind both the query and the content indexed.

Semantic Search

That’s where the concept of semantic search comes in. I attended a media event earlier this year at stealth search startup Powerset (see: Powerset is Not a Google-killer!), at which they showcased a live demo of their search engine, currently in closed alpha, that highlighted solutions to exactly this type of issue.

For example, type “What was said about Jesus” into a major search engine, and you usually get a whole list of results that consist of the teachings of Jesus; this means that the search engine entirely missed the concepts of passive voice and “about.” The Powerset results, on the other hand, were consistently on target (for the demo, anyway!).

In other words, when you look at just the keywords in the query, you don’t really understand what the user is looking for; by looking at them within context, by taking into account the qualifiers, the prepositions, the negatives, and other such nuances, you can create a semantic graph of the query. The same case can be made for semantic parsing of the content indexed. Put the two together, as Powerset does, and you can get a much better feel for relevance of results.

What about Google? I’m sure the smart folks in Google’s search-quality team are busily working on this problem as well. I look forward to the time when the major search engines handle long tail queries more accurately and make search a better experience for all of us.

Update: for an expanded version of this article with real-life user queries, see my blog.

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Google’s US Search Market Dominance Hits All Time High

Written by Marshall Kirkpatrick / April 7, 2008 1:51 PM / 15 Comments


Traffic analysts Hitwise released new numbers today finding that Google’s marketshare in US searches rose last month to an all time high of 67% of searches performed. Yahoo! Search (20%), MSN Search (5.25%) and Ask.com (4%) trail far behind but aren’t insignificant either.

At this time last year Google was at 64% and MSN was at 9%. Momentum remains with Google, but is that momentum inevitable? Could things change? We’ve written about three ways that it could.

Innovation

Some have argued that Google’s approach to search is outdated and slow to change. Apparently it’s working just fine for them today, but there’s a world of opportunities for other innovators to come up with a better search experience. We wrote about this situation in our recent post titled “How Vulnerable is Google in Search?

Hitwise tracks 46 other search engines as well, which added up for a combined 1.7% of searches last month. 46 alternative search engines is like a week’s work for our network blog AltSearchEgines, check it out if you’d like to learn about the rest of the industry, including some that may become the challengers of the future.

Semantic Web

Yahoo! is #2 today, but is taking the lead in support for standards based microformats and semantic web indexing. Yahoo! announced that it would index semantic markup three weeks ago. Since semantic markup could enable improvements in search quality by orders of magnitude, this could be a turning point for Google and Yahoo!

As we explained when that announcement was made:

Today, a web service might work very hard to scour the internet to discover all the book reviews written on various sites, by friends of mine, who live in Europe. That would be so hard that no one would probably try it. The suite of technologies Yahoo! is moving to support will make such searches trivial. Once publishers start including things like hReview, FOAF and geoRSS in their content then Yahoo!, and other sites leveraging Yahoo! search results, will be able to ask easily what it is we want to do with those book reviews. Say hello to a new level of innovation.

 

We’d like to get an update on the Yahoo! semantic indexing announcement, though, and presumably this is the kind of thing that Google will do soon as well.

Privacy Backlash

As Google grows continually stronger and more knowledgeable, the importance of the social contract between the company and its customers becomes increasingly more important. Google has not been as good as it needs to be about taking clear steps to guarantee security and prevent misuse of user data – including its own misuse of that data!

We wrote in February about how Microsoft’s new levels of engagement with oppenness and data portability could offer an avenue to challenge Google, but few of our readers agreed in comments. You know what they say, though – if your mouth gets washed out with soap, you may be saying something important!

It may not be Microsoft that challenges Google, but it certainly seems possible that users will draw the line somewhere and look to limit Google’s omniscience.

Perhaps not, though. Perhaps Google’s search dominance will continue to grow and grow, month over month, year over year. Someday, if you want to know about your genetic propensity for a particular disease, you’ll just as the Google. If you want to know what your kids are doing at home while you’re away, you’ll just ask the Google. Certainly today when we want to know what’s on the web, a clear majority of us just ask the Google.

smarket.png

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