If Google's so good, why can't it find my keys?

Future Tense for Jun. 11, 2007

By Steve Welker

My colleague, Angela Schmoll, wrote a column last week about a frustrating search for her keys.

Coincidentally, I recently saw an ad about a remedy for her problem. Not much larger than a cigarette lighter, the device combines GPS (global positioning system) and cell-phone technology. You attach it to your key ring. When you lose your keys, call the device’s cell-phone number and it tells you where it is. All for only $395. Or was it $295?

Darn it, I lost the web site where I saw it.

Well, fortunately there’s Google. I typed in lost key ring gps and hit enter. In 0.52 seconds, Google found 34,000 web pages with those words. At 15 seconds for each page, it will only take 141.6667 hours for me to look at each one.

With my luck, the key ring finder will be on the last page.

Google (www.google.com) is, arguably, the Internet’s best search engine. It looks at, indexes and often copies (“caches”) more than 4 billion Web pages. Thanks to a near-magical program, it has an uncanny knack for finding information and, with unnerving accuracy, for turning up things you want that you didn’t know you want.

For example, Google found a sound-activated key finder for $14.95. Clap your hands and the key finder beeps until you find it (if it isn’t buried under the sofa cushions or at the bottom of the washing machine).

However, Google also popped up something I wasn’t seeking: the Wherify Wireless GPS Personal Locator Watch for Children ($189.99). Put the bright purple watch on your child’s wrist and, whenever little Johnny of Joanie walks off, contact the Wherify Location Service Center by telephone or Internet. The center sends a signal via satellite to the watch that replies with its GPS coordinates. Then Wherify tells you the child’s precise latitude and longitude and the nearest street address. It will even send a custom aerial photo. Look up and smile at the satellite, Johnny!

Finding things on the Internet has been a chore since Labor Day in 1969 when researchers gave birth to the Internet by connecting computers at UCLA, Stanford, UC-Santa Barbara and University of Utah. Back then, if you wanted to know whether someone else’s computer had a program or data you needed, you had two choices: (a) call its operator and ask or (b) use “telnet” software to take control of their computer.

System administrators never liked having strangers rummaging through their computers via telnet, so they invented a more specialized type of limited access called FTP (for file transfer protocol). With FTP you could send and receive files and also look at directories, but not actually control another computer.

The Internet hit its teens in the 1980s. By 1989, it was overgrown and gangly. Users desperately needed better ways to find information. Very smart programs with very silly names began to solve the problem.

Archie was invented in 1990 at McGill University in Montreal. Contrary to legend, it wasn’t named after the cartoon character; it’s shorthand for “Archives Explorer”). Archie looked at other computers’ file directories, copied the file names and locations and assembled that data in lists anyone could fetch (using Archie software) from McGill’s main computer. It’s the model for Lycos.

Gopher was invented in 1991 by a team at University of Minnesota — home of the “Golden Gophers.” It let people burrow up, down and sideways in computers’ directories to search for information. No muss, no fuss. Gopher is the model for Yahoo.

(By the way, your Internet-savvy kids probably don’t know it, but Gopher is still around. Some of its servers provide access to “Gopherspace” unknown even to Google. Type gopher://quux.org:70/1 into Internet Explorer and you’re off.)

When Archie directories began to swell to the size of the Manhattan White Pages, along came Veronica in 1992. Veronica really is named for Archie’s girlfriend in the comics. However, Veronica worked with Gopher, not Archie, so someone later said the name stands for “Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Net-Wide Index to Computerized Archives.”

Jughead — I kid you not; it stands for Jonzy’s Universal Gopher Heirarchy Excavation And Display — followed in 1993. It offered keyword searches and Boolean (“and,” “or,” “not,” “near,” etc.) logic.

These programs appeared just in time, because the Internet went public in 1995. Almost overnight, the amount of information exploded, thanks in large part to a program you’ve never heard of called “Enquire Within About Everything.”

Next week we’ll talk about how to find stuff on the Internet in the future.

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