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Just a few years ago, a career as a Webmaster sounded more like a role in a fantasy game than an actual job. Today, Webmasters—the people who create and maintain Web sites—make up a sizable percentage of the information technology (IT) field. Careers that involve creating, improving, and maintaining Internet search engines are similar to the Webmaster jobs of years past. While few people had heard of these positions in the 1990s, by 2000, there was an unending demand for people who could design and update Web pages.

A search engine is a network of thousands of computers that use indexes to gather and sort relevant information according to a user's requests. Today, the most popular search engine is Google, but there are countless others that appeal to specific audiences. Many of these audiences include scholars or physicians who employ a variety of engines to search for relevant information.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, high-tech professions in IT will continue growing at a dramatic pace over the next decade. Computer specialists, such as people involved in creating and supporting search engines, are expected to increase by more than two-thirds (more than two million jobs) during that time. The Internet, the World Wide Web, and the technology we use to access them, have so quickly evolved that it's easy to forget that they are new applications. Until a few years ago, they sounded more like science fiction than a marriage of hardware and software. Now, “to Google” is a verb phrase in English, Japanese, German, and Italian.

Search engines, however, are still in their infancy. Most experts guess that we are only seeing 5 percent of what's possible. It's an estimate that surfaces repeatedly. The Internet is still considered one of the world's “wide open spaces.” In fact, the Internet and the World Wide Web have attracted Wild West metaphors since the mid-1990s because they are so big that they seem limitless. Like the Wild West, there are few, if any, rules about organizing the information, and the “good” guys and the “bad” guys are perpetually fighting it out. The language of the Web, and of the search engines that we use to find things on it, reflect this analogy. It's part computer-lab talk—which sounds either like math or like people who have stayed up too late working—with such things as algorithms and computer languages that take their names from coffee (Java) or sweet snacks (Gnutella, from Nutella). The other part remains wild: In 2006, Google was advertising for a search engine optimizer with a “white hat hacker mentality” (to fight off the guys with the black hats, of course).

The U.S. Department of Labor's 2006 report on careers estimates that more than 21 million people are working in the computer industry, roughly 16 percent of the national workforce, excluding farming and farm-related jobs. These figures are expected to increase as more and more communication, commerce, educational instruction, and recreation take place online and on an ever-growing number of portable electronic devices.

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