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Dude, Where's My Web Page?


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
May 23, 2005

At first I didn't notice it. As things were thawing out here in upstate New York, my Time-Warner Roadrunner connection started to slow down. Toward the middle of April, my cable modem began dropping out altogether, first once a day for maybe a minute and then several times a day for as long as half an hour. My initial attempt to contact Roadrunner through their online chat ended as an exercise in futility because my connection dropped momentarily after I had spent considerable time describing my problem and the tech support droid thought I had left and so he hung up on me, leaving no way to get back to him. (Apparently, the script book does not teach them to expect occasional pauses from people complaining of dropped connections.)

My next attempt at service, this time via telephone, led to the response that they were having trouble in my area and could not diagnose the problem. Eventually, the cable guy paid me a visit and diagnosed the problem as my signal being too strong. (Higher temperatures imply better conductivity or just sheer coincidence.) He weakened the signal with the standard 50-cent signal attenuator, swapped out my prehistoric cable modem for a sleek new model, and all has been well ever since.

This commentary, however, is not a Roadrunner rant or rave, there are plenty of them on the Internet already. In the end, they did about as well overall as my other communications provider, Verizon (more on them in the next commentary). Instead, this is another in my continuing examinations of Google and its ilk. You see, as one's cable modem begins to drop out on a regular basis, the natural tendency whenever a page does not load is to look over to the cable modem to check the connection light. The website that made me gaze toward my modem the most was, you guessed it, Google. In a distant second place was My Yahoo! (though some of their news items seem to take forever to load).

When I last wrote about Google, I took a decidedly bullish stance on the company because I figured them to be smart enough to dribble out their shares so as not to tank the value of the company in the short run. While I was off base for the month of November 2004 (and will be inflicting a new, improved version of the Google challenge on my next crop of MBA students this coming November), it has not done badly of late. Furthermore, I am rooting for the smart guys at Google to invent wonderful new things that makes the Internet an even more wonderful place and I don't mind if they get rich in the process as long as anyone has any privacy left after they are done with us. Still, I do have to wonder why if they are so smart, their pages load sooooo slowly.

One thing that has always puzzled me is the load time that appears on each search. For example, I am going to stop writing this and perform a Google search on a famous female pop singer who does things like get married to a high-school friend on impulse and gets an annulment a few days later. (I am intentionally not including her name here—my Rigged site already gets too many hits from her "fans" because in my infamous Wal-Mart piece I refer to her on the cover of Esquire.) Okay, I'm back and the search took 0.47 seconds. In a world of multi-gigahertz processors with multiple cores and hyperthreading, 0.47 seconds is an eternity. And what was there to search for anyway? Mine was undoubtedly one of thousands or more searches on exactly the same name within the last second or two. You would think that the search would be cached and therefore retrieved instantly. What's going on? Are they using golden retrievers and sticks?

Why does this matter? Right now, Google performs what could charitably be referred to as dumb searches. If you try to do a search for Brit??? Spea??, you get stuff back on the Great Basin Spadefoot Toad. (Googlers who are looking for info on the Great Basin Spadefoot Toad, please click here. Thank you.) Indeed, the major search tools available with your favorite variety of UNIX (I grew up using BSD) allow searches on what are known as regular expressions. Regular expressions include the standard device of using a question mark to match an arbitrary single character and an asterisk to match an arbitrary string of characters of indeterminate length. The problem is that if Google really takes a good chunk of a second to do a single search (which I don't believe it does), then it could takes hours to work its way through any but the most trivial regular expression.

Still, this does not answer the question of why the pages that most often got me looking at the cable modem were Google searches—I was waiting a lot longer than a fraction of a second. While it will not matter to the typical Google user whether a search for a pop star or toad (or pop star toad) is instantaneous or takes a fraction of a second, some things just are not worth a 20-second wait. This is exactly the kind of thing that if Google collapses at some point in the future, people will say, "You know, we should have suspected something was wrong when their service started slowing down early in 2005."

So, the issue is what is going on here and just what is the deal with Google? Another less-than-speedy site is, but it is consistently slow and something usually pops up within 5 seconds. (By contrast, is a speed demon. Note to Dow Jones: You are making capitalism look bad.) Back when I used to read psychology papers for kicks, I remember seeing something about people preferring predictability to speed and you would think that the Google people had read these papers. (By the way, though I have not done a scientific comparison of the speed of various sites—that's not my job—I have noticed the same loading behavior on machines away from home. Believe me, when Google takes its time downloading search results in front a class of 40 hungry MBA students who want to get home to their families after an evening class, people notice.)

So, what might be the problem with Google? Overloaded servers? They are rolling in money—you would think that they could buy more especially considering the ad revenue at stake. Anyway, the guys at Google are not evil and they certainly are, if nothing else, smart.

Then again, perhaps it's hackers and extortionists. Google has become the highest profile site on the Net and as such it is also the biggest target. If offshore gaming sites can be counted on to cough up tens of thousands of dollars to stay in business, just imagine what Google might be willing to pay, not they that ever would.

Then again, maybe the Google Labs guys are cooking up something new and co-opting their server farms in the service of product development. No, that is giving them too much credit. This past week they enhanced Google News to give it some minor degree of flexibility, but still nothing like My Yahoo! and they rolled out the beginnings of a portal to compete directly with My Yahoo! (it is not good style to end a sentence with Yahoo!-sometimes that exclamation point irks me, but I can simply tack on a parenthetic expression followed by a period to deal with that). As we used to say in my obnoxious undergraduate days, "I am not impressed."

My guess is that within the next five years the current state-of-the-art portals will seem as laughable as the DOS C: prompt is now. (Oh no, I've offended DOS purists and paranoid Linux penguin folk.) By using live bookmarks for RSS feeds and the bookmark sidebar in Firefox, I can get much of the functionality of My Yahoo! with more timely feeds and less jumping around. And if the Longhorn team knows what they are doing, they could single-handedly knock Yahoo! out of the portal business overnight. As it is, the Adblock extension in Firefox makes sure I never see any of the ads on Yahoo! (why do I bother?).

And then there's the little matter of the cell phone, something Bill Gates appears to understand. I guess that hell has now officially frozen over as I have thrown in the towel and joined the ranks of hardcore cell phone users—I refer to them as "pod people." In my next commentary (barring anything exciting happening in the financial markets), "Going Mobile," I will discuss my conversion and my first month in celltopia.

Copyright 2005 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to