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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

We're going to hear now about another high tech giant - Google. You can think of Google and its search engine as a well-traveled interstate. It's how people get where they want to go on the Internet. So you Google tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, for example, and get instructions for a caprese salad. It's your way onto the web.

And, like a real highway, a whole industry has grown up around the popular search engine - kind of like fast food joints and motels sprout up along the highway. We're going to take a look at the economy that's built up around this reliance on Google in two parts this week. In the first, NPR's Zoe Chace explains how companies use the way you search to make money.

ZOE CHACE: Because you search for this...

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)

LOUISE KELLY: How do I brush my teeth?

CHACE: You get this...

LOUISE KELLY: How to brush your teeth. There's two pieces of advice you can never go wrong by following.

CHACE: Ready? Here comes the big reveal.

LOUISE KELLY: Floss and brush at least twice a day to keep your pearly whites bright and healthy.

CHACE: There are so many people asking Google questions, that a slew of companies have shot up over the past couple of years to provide you with answers.

One of them is Howcast.com - headquartered in an airy loft in downtown Manhattan. They commission how-to videos. The company is prospering but has a real start-up feel. The office is clean and crisp, and a little hip, like you're walking around the Apple Store.

So what are we looking at?

LOUISE KELLY: These are spreadsheets that show a little bit of the process of going from search queries to titles.

CHACE: Tom Bender is a supervising producer at Howcast. He's pulled up a list of the things you search for about dance.

LOUISE KELLY: How to dance. Dougie dance, hip hop dance, wedding dance, dance moves, Cupid shuffle.

CHACE: How much can Howcast make off the question: How to dance the Cupid shuffle? To decide whether to commission a video, Bender gives it a score. He won't reveal all the ingredients. It's a secret sauce. But here are the main factors.

LOUISE KELLY: So, for example, eye makeup. So that query receives about 200,000 searches per month on YouTube.

CHACE: That's one. How many times the topic eye makeup is searched on YouTube - 200,000. He looks at how many results come up for this search. It's not that much by comparison, so he feels his video can compete here. And the third factor - and this is very important...

LOUISE KELLY: And then we also look at things like cost per click associated with that query.

CHACE: The cost per click. That's how much advertisers are willing to spend to put an ad next to this particular topic if your video shows up near the top of the YouTube results. This is how you succeed in this field. It's with this formula. If you have a formula that allows you be at the top of a Google search, then you can make a killing.

The cost per click is the engine that drives sites like Howcast to make entire video series on a topic like...

LOUISE KELLY: Understanding the types of harmonicas, how to play a chromatic harmonica, how to play a diatonic harmonica, how to play blues harmonica, how to play a harmonica solo.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARMONICA)

LOUISE KELLY: Four blow, five blow, five draw, six blow, five blow...

CHACE: Right above our heads is the Howcast studio, where we find harmonica player Marcus Milius. He's seated on a stool in a sweaty suit and bowler cap, creating answers to these profitable questions.

How many do you have left to do?

LOUISE KELLY: Nine.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOUISE KELLY: Do we really?

LOUISE KELLY: Yeah.

CHACE: You could think of him as a well-dressed factory worker. The videographer has a list next to him of more than 20 individual titles for videos that he checks off as Milius gets up to stretch his legs. There's no ambiguity.

LOUISE KELLY: Pretty much they gave me the list, and I'm just creating content based upon these questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN")

LOUISE KELLY: There's an entire industry that's sprung up around the idea of search engine optimization, of understanding how Google thinks, of how Bing thinks, and reverse-engineer how the search engines do their searches.

CHACE: Daniel Roth is an editor with Fortune magazine. He says how-to sites are very desirable to advertisers, for one simple reason: The content doesn't have an expiration date. It stays fresh.

LOUISE KELLY: And advertisers don't necessarily want to be up against coverage of Japan or coverage of the recession. If you sell carpet cleaner and the how-to site is how to stop your dog from peeing on the rug, then that is a perfect article you want to be next to.

CHACE: Remember that search for eye makeup that Howcast ended up making an entire series about? An article on how to put on eye makeup is just as pertinent in six months as it is right now. So if the company creating the content really gets their formula right, their article on eye makeup should stay at the top of your search results for a long time. That's great for advertisers.

LOUISE KELLY: content farms.

LOUISE KELLY: Content farms pay people almost no money to turn out very mediocre content that can serve up very cheap ads. It's pure Google arbitrage.

CHACE: Content farms have swamped your search results, like algae taking over a pond. And Google's not too happy about it. We'll spend some time on the content farm tomorrow, on MORNING EDITION.

Zoe Chace, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOUISE KELLY: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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