That's how most of us see Google. But guess what? That's how Google sees you, too.
You may or may not be a Google user. But Google is definitely using you.
As you probably know, Google is in the book-scanning business. The company works with libraries and publications (including the New York Times) to scan and digitize book collections. It then posts these texts on the Internet and sells advertising against it. Scanning books is like printing money.
The challenge is that computers aren't as good as humans at recognizing words. Fortunately, optical character recognition (OCR) systems nowadays are at least smart enough to know what they don't know -- they can identify words that they can't read, or can't recognize with certainty.
But what should Google do with those unrecognizable mystery words?
Unemployment in Mountain View, Calif., where Google is headquartered, is above 10%. The company could easily hire hundreds of locals to sift through and identify all those hard-to-recognize words, but it would cost them a fortune. Alternatively, Google could outsource the job to China, Vietnam, the Philippines or some other country with a lower-cost workforce able to do such work on a large scale.
But why pay when you -- yes YOU -- will do the work for free?
Google outsources this menial labor to the Internet-using world. Whenever you use Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist or many other web sites, you're doing free grunt work for Google.
You know those squiggly or otherwise deliberately warped or obscured words you have to type in to "prove you're human"? They're called CAPTCHA systems, and they make the world a better place by thwarting software robots that would hack, exploit and abuse various software services if they could.
CAPTCHA, invented by Luis von Ahn at Carnegie Mellon University, is an acronym derived from "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart." The reason CAPTCHA works is that the human brain is vastly superior to any computer at pattern recognition.
Less than a year ago, Google bought an interesting variant of CAPTCHA called reCAPTCHA. When you "prove you're human" at a site using reCAPTCHA, one of the words you identify for access is actually one of those mystery words Google's OCR computers can't read. (The other word is known by the system, and used for actually proving you're human.)
They're sending the same word to other users, and use the general consensus to identify the word. The results are fed back to the scanning effort, bringing word recognition very close to 100%.
Nice work! Thanks to your brain's amazing ability to recognize words, Google is making a fortune in the book scanning racket!
Here's another example of how Google solved a business problem by using you as a free resource.
First, the problem. A great many companies are trying to figure out how to reliably orient a customer in space, to answer the question: Where am I? If any company can do that, a universe of contextual advertising, location-based services and all manner of mapping applications become possible. But how?
First, Google started layering publicly available satellite maps onto road maps. Then Google implemented Street View. Google's audacious plan was to send specially equipped cars to all corners of the globe to photograph every street and every home and every business.
When Google takes a picture of your house, what are they doing and why are they doing it?