Dave Winer says "the thing that made Google different is that you treated us decently while the earlier search engines forgot who we were, and were treating us like eyeballs, not people."
The comment is part of a discussion on the way Apple is treating some of it's supporters in suing them for releasing trade secrets. I had a conversation earlier with a librarian blogger about the decline and fall of Google. I didn't start using Google because they treated anyone decently. I started googling things for the same reason I imagine most of their other users did - consistently better search results.
Before Google there were some search engines and many directories. Information was neatly organized in hierarchical structures. Some adventurous souls were even flying through cyberspace using HotSauce. Several search engine groups sprung up, among them Digital's AltaVista, Excite, InfoSeek and others. They each catalogued some of the web but none was comprehensive. Along came MetaCrawler and introduced the notion of using the relative rank of pages in different searches to figure out the best results and it put them first.
In the end all of these became irrelevant as Google became the king of search. It was now faster to do a Google search and you were quite likely to find what you were looking for right at the top of the first page. Ah, yes those were the good old days. We thought Google was different and cared more than the others. In fact they were about doing one thing and doing it well. They've expanded and do several things pretty well now. Google maps, for example is great.
However, they've lost their claim to being the best search engine out there. The reality is that the advertisers have won. Try a search for something like Sandy Valley, Nevada on Google. You'll get a whole bunch of ads. Want to know about DSL in Sandy Valley? Click on a link and you'll learn. (By the way there is no DSL in Sandy Valley and the sad reality is that's not likely to change.) Or you can get a link to hotel reservations in the ads. Nearest hotel is 20 miles away. In fact you have to go pages into the links before there are many relevant hits.
Compare those results to MSN where there are 8 out of 10 first page results that are good. Yahoo does almost as well and pulls up as a first hit an essay that has a lot to say about Sandy Valley (from someone who grew up in the valley).
Will Google see the light and catch up with the "new" kids on the block? Time will tell.