Even by Silicon Valley standards, life at Google is ridiculously cool. The 120 employees at the two-story office block off Route 101 known as the Googleplex have everything a well-to-do West Coaster could wish for: full-time masseuse, yoga classes, all the Ben and Jerry bars they can eat and organic catering by the guy who used to do meals for the Grateful Dead. The only table in the boardroom is for Ping-Pong. There's pool, shuffleboard, two pianos, twice-weekly hockey games, K'nex models for the nerd set--which is everyone--and even a bedroom, for when you've had too much Ben and Jerry's.
But if there's one thing in the Googleplex that's cooler and more popular than free ice cream, it's the company's product (found, of course, at google.com) The brainchild of Stanford University pals Larry Page, 27, and Sergey Brin, 26, Google is the Web's largest and hippest search engine. In just two years it has gained a reputation for uncanny speed and accuracy, delivering exactly what you're looking for in a fraction of a second. The site now does this 40 million times a day--not quite a googol (10100, which is 1 followed by 100 zeroes) or the much larger googolplex (1010100), but a number achieved without spending a penny on a TV or newspaper ad.
Google doesn't need them. In the past six months alone, the site has won a Webby (the online version of the Oscar) for technical excellence, set a new record for search engines by indexing a billion Web pages, and got tapped by industry giant Yahoo to become its default search engine (the one you're sent to automatically if Yahoo can't come up with the goods).
Yahoo still has 10 times the audience, but Google consistently ranks first in customer satisfaction: 97% of users find what they're looking for most or all of the time. "You see people smile when they use it, like they've found something no one else knows about," says Danny Sullivan, editor of the online newsletter searchenginewatch.com
No one is smiling more than Page and Brin, who seem certain to become billionaires when the company goes public, probably sometime next year. (In an unusual alliance, it's being backed by the valley's two major venture-capital firms, Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins.) Page is full of wonkish bonhomie, the kind of guy who rides an electric scooter to work and loves to tell you about the time he built a working inkjet printer out of Legos. Brin acts aloof and acerbic, ever ready to toss a quip at his partner. They make a great comedy duo.
When they first met as Ph.D. students, the pair say they found each other obnoxious--"I still find him obnoxious," adds Brin--but were thrust together by a computer-science project aimed at devising better ways of searching the Web. From the start, it was hard-core geek love.
The idea behind Google, then as now, is that traditional search engines are infuriatingly stupid. They think relevance is based on repetition; if you type in a request for Tiger Woods, say, you'll get websites listed according to how many times those words appear. Not only is this no guarantee of quality, but it's also open to abuse. If you own a Tiger fan site and want to steer more people to it, simply type his name thousands of times in the site's source code.