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Feeling lucky?
By Evan Leibovitch, ZDNet Contributing Editor - Linux
July 23, 1999 1:18 PM ET

Time for another hidden gem column. These columns highlight things that I've found to be relatively little known, yet significantly help one's use of a Linux system.

In this case, the gem isn't even a part of a Linux distribution. It's not a piece of software, a book or an event. But it can help you find all three. You see, this hidden gem is a Web site, simply called Google (or "google dot com" if you must).

Portals 'R' Us
The Linux world, even more than other corners of the information super-gridlock, is becoming awash with portals. Red Hat has acquired the talents of a Web design firm called Atomic Vision, perhaps looking to become a major portal host. VA Linux Systems (formerly VA Research) bought the rights to linux.com and has turned it into an active, if perhaps overly busy, portal page. The venerable linux.org site is still popular. And of course I'd be rapped on the knuckles if I didn't mention the ZDNet Linux page.

Heck, we now have companies offering tools that let anyone make their own portal. The Zope people have released a "portal toolkit", offering a vision of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Linux portals that do pretty much the same thing.

But not Google. Compare the stark simplicity of Google's home page to the clutter of most current portals. As you can imagine, it takes very little time to download, even when using a slow Internet link. And it's extremely friendly to any browser, including the popular Lynx text browser.

And yet, much of what one would want from a portal, whether information about Linux or anything else on the Web, is available here. Furthermore, what started as a research project at Stanford University by two PhD students is now a successful commercial venture for them. "There are a number of thesis projects based on it," according to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

The project started out under the name "backrub," but was later changed to Google, a play on the term googol, a number representing ten to the power of 100. It's an apt target for a site that -- even though I consider it a hidden gem -- gets a hundred million hits per month, according to Brin.

The penguin's gone
The Linux connection isn't as obvious as it used to be. Before it turned commercial, Google's logo included the now-familiar Linux penguin. But Google still runs on Linux and appears to do a better job of offering search results than alternatives such as ht://Dig. According to Brin, the searching and sorting technology behind Google makes it more likely to come up with the pages searchers most want, right at the top of the search results. While Google finds most of its pages through crawlers making their way throughout the web, the impatient can tell Google to look for their pages at this URL.

It's not totally fair to compare Google and ht://Dig. ht://Dig is an open source search engine and Google uses proprietary software that Brin and his partner Larry Page license to companies such as Netscape and Red Hat. Still, anyone making their own portal is welcome to point to Google's page or even put the Google search capability right on their site. Google even gives budding portal masters the code to do it.

For the future, Brin said that Google is looking at other forms of revenue, such as putting a banner ad on the high-volume front page. "We just haven't gotten around to doing the infrastructure needed to do that," he said.

Taking chances
While I hope that banner ads won't detract from the clean look of the Google home page layout, my favorite feature of Google won't be affected.

There's a button on the Google page you don't see on many other search engines, called "I'm feeling lucky." If you enter some criteria and click that button, Google takes you right to the Web page of the first search result.

"We put in that button because Google does such a good job of presenting what people want, and giving them the most useful links right at the front," Brin said. "Very often the first search result is what people are looking for, and that button takes them right there."

Sometimes it doesn't always work as expected. When I did a lucky search on my last name, it took me to an interview about mental institutions at www.schizophrenia.com... maybe it's trying to tell me something.

Still, have a look at Google. While it's a great general purpose search engine, it's especially good at searching for things Linux and Linux-ish. FAQs, READMEs, HOWTOs, or e-mail discussions, you'll find it all. It's possibly the best search engine on the 'net, and luck has nothing to do with that.

What's your favorite Linux hidden gem? Let us know in the ZDNet Linux Forum. Or write to Evan directly at evan@starnix.com.

Evan Leibovitch has been working with Unix and Linux on PC systems for more than a dozen years. He's a partner in Starnix Inc., a Linux-centric integrator based in Brampton, Ontario. He has been heavily involved in user groups, both as a former director of UniForum Canada and as a current director of the Canadian Linux Users' Exchange. When not around computers, Evan enjoys cooking, writing, and annoying his children.

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