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Google, the world’s most popular search engine, hasn’t even been around for a decade — it was founded in 1998 — yet it is already hard to remember life without it. It has its rivals, notably Yahoo, Microsoft, Ask Jeeves, which launched a test version in Japan last month, and now Amazon, whose fancy entry into the high-stakes field got off the ground Sept. 15. But only Google has entered the language: Who doesn’t know what “to google” means? Not surprisingly, its spectacular success has spawned misgivings.

The biggest misgiving turns on a debate about the significance of the technology Google uses to rank Web sites or, in other words, to rank the information people see when they conduct a search. (Other engines use similar technology, but Google handles a stunning 75 percent of all Web searches.) The way it works is no secret: Although it constantly fine-tunes its algorithm, or procedure, the company basically ranks Web pages according to “votes,” with a vote representing links to that site from other sites.

According to Matthew Hindman and Kenneth Neil Cukier, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Google’s use of links to find content is worrying because it “essentially turns the Web into the world’s biggest popularity contest.”

“In this respect,” they have written, “Google’s technology reinforces . . . the trend toward consolidation that affects everything from politics to news to commerce.”

Google, however, calls its system democracy in action, and this viewpoint has numerous defenders. One wrote trenchantly on his Web site last year: “The bottom line is that Google is nothing but a mirror of public opinion. . . . If you don’t like what you see when you look in the mirror, don’t blame the mirror.

Most of us use search engines without a thought for the ramifications of the technology behind them. But with Google going public this summer and its competitors using essentially variants of the same methods, the debate about what we expect them to be — mirror or lamp? — is only going to intensify.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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