Some of the real estate coveted most by the Internet giants isn't on the Internet at all. It's on your computer hard drive.
Google unveiled a software tool today that lets searchers tap into the files on their PC desktops when they hunt for information on the Web. For instance, Google queries for "Lakers" will return not only Web pages but also every e-mail, instant message or Word document that mentions the basketball team.
The move is expected to unleash a flurry of similar products from such rivals as Yahoo and Ask Jeeves, which have been deploying engineers and buying companies with the goal of tackling desktop search.
But Google's biggest adversary may well be the king of the PC desktop — Microsoft.
"There's billions at stake now," said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com. "The battlefields are expanding."
Google and Microsoft are moving more aggressively onto each other's turf.
The Redmond, Wash., software titan is already building its own search engine in an effort to head off up-and-comers like Google. Its MSN division acquired Lookout Software, a start-up that makes desktop search software, in July. And Longhorn, the version of Windows due out in 2006 or 2007, is expected to let users search the Web or the contents of their computers without having to open a browser.
So Google is trying to establish a beachhead on the PC desktop first.
"It's the Microsoft fear factor," Sullivan said. "There's this fear that Microsoft will come up with a great, integrated tool and wipe out the search engines."
Google executives say there's a more straightforward explanation for why they spent the past year creating Google Desktop: it fits their mission of helping to organize the world's information.
Marissa Mayer, director of consumer Web products for the Mountain View, Calif., company, said the software should "behave like a photographic memory on your computer: If you've seen it on your machine, you should be able to search for it and find it."
The idea appeals to Gary Price, a librarian and editor of ResourceShelf.com, a website for information professionals who tested the new Google service.
"Some of the most important information is your own, what's on your desktop," he said.
Google Desktop stores a record of all the files on the PC and updates the searchable index every time a new e-mail comes in, document is created or Web page is viewed on the machine. (For privacy reasons, users can rope off parts of their hard drives they don't want to have searched, and they can turn off the indexing function when they surf the Web.)
Then, when a Google searcher types in a search query, the relevant documents from the PC are posted at the top of the results page. That information won't show up in other people's Google searches; the file archive is stored on the user's computer, not on Google's servers with the searchable index of Web pages. For now, it only works on computers using the Windows operating system.
Mayer said Google has no immediate plans to plaster ads on people's PC desktops or on the desktop query results, but she didn't rule it out. She does hope people will search their own files at the same time as they search for Web pages, on which Google does place ads.
Finding a better way to search computer hard drives isn't a new idea. As even Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has noted, it's ridiculous that people can search billions of Web pages much faster than they can pinpoint items on their own computers.
AltaVista, the search engine company that is now part of Yahoo, tried to solve the problem in 1998, but its solution never caught on. Terra Lycos of Spain, X1 Technologies of Pasadena and Copernic Technologies of Newton, Mass., all offer desktop search software.
And others will be following. Ask Jeeves acquired Tukaroo, a privately held desktop search company, in June. Yahoo has said it plans to have its search engine find locally stored information. And Time Warner's America Online is testing a new browser with desktop search software built in.
But Google has an advantage. Nearly 70 million people in the United States already visit Google.com each month to search the Web. Why not use Google to simultaneously search your PC?
That may be only the beginning for Google Desktop.
Now that Google is indexing the contents of individual PCs, analysts say it's only a matter of time before the company offers to store copies of those files on its vast farm of computer servers. People would be able to access their term papers and PowerPoint presentations from any Internet-connected device — whether it runs Windows or not — and easily search through them using the technology that made Google famous. Some Internet pundits have speculated that Google could even create its own word processor and other programs to compete with Microsoft's Office suite.
Mayer, the Google executive, would not comment on whether the company plans to offer such services.
If Google does, that could mean trouble for Microsoft. The more you can do on the Internet, the less important your PC becomes. Indeed, Gates has been worrying about the Internet making Windows less relevant since 1995 and has invested billions of dollars in developing new Web programs and services.
That investment includes a homegrown search engine, which Microsoft is still testing and tweaking, and Lookout for desktop search.
"We are committed to delivering the best possible search experience for customers," MSN product manager Justin Osmer said in a statement. "Our focus is on helping consumers get faster, cleaner and easier access to the information they want, not [on] what other companies are doing."
That could make the Google platform more important than the operating system platform.
Marc Andreessen, a Silicon Valley executive who knows something about brawling with Microsoft, believes that predictions of a brewing battle between Microsoft and Google is just talk. The co-founder of Netscape Communications, the Web browser that Microsoft demolished using illegal tactics, said last week that Google "is being essentially led by the nose into a direct confrontation with Microsoft" by the media and Web bloggers.
"Everyone is spoiling for a fight," he said at the Web 2.0 conference here. "I've seen it before."
Google, however, appears acutely aware of the fierce competition. Although Google Desktop can search through conversations conducted with AOL Instant Messenger, it doesn't work with programs from Yahoo or Microsoft.