Will Google stay as hot as its lava lamps?

To remain at top of HR game, company faces hurdles including less-attractive stock options and prospect of reputation declining. Photos: A Google of ways to work

For a few years now, search engine darling Google has worn the tiara as the tech world's "it" company.

But as it matures from cool-kid start-up to publicly traded veteran, can Google maintain its status as "the" place people in the technology world want to work?

It won't be easy. Although Google has signed on big-name talent from major companies such as Microsoft, its hurdles include retaining newly minted millionaires who helped build the company before its initial public stock offering earlier this year. Google also faces the challenges of attracting new workers without the lure of pre-IPO stock, staying on top of new technology markets and maintaining its trustworthy reputation.

Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco were all once the "hot" tech company at which to work, and their luster faded as they grew and aged. But Google, which now has roughly 2,700 employees, seems determined to continue with what's been its recipe for success so far: Create cutting-edge technology to pursue grand goals.

In addition, the company is being smart about one of its potential rivals, the open-source community, according to Jupiter Research analyst Gary Stein. Whereas Microsoft heaped scorn on the growing open-source movement, Google has shown respect for it, Stein noted. By doing so, the company has kept its techie street cred. "They're still seen as part of the community of hackers--in the best sense of the word," Stein said.

A bold mission
Born in 1998, Google is the brainchild of Stanford University computer science graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin . In short order, it became the leading Web site for conducting Internet searches, standing out for both a simple design and a methodology based on the popularity of Web sites.

The company bills itself as a place where tech professionals will simultaneously find challenging work and change the world. "You won't find any bored engineers at Google," the company's Web site states. "You will find friendly colleagues, fascinating projects and the opportunity to make life better for tens of millions of people every day."

So-called "Googlers" are promised an unusual degree of freedom. All employees are encouraged to work on their own individual projects 20 percent of the time. And those projects have the potential to be ambitious in terms of computer horsepower. Sources familiar with Google say the company has built a vast server farm of more than 100,000 machines that can be used to solve tough computing problems.

Google also may be the last of the dot-coms when it comes to workplace culture. Its "Googleplex" headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., boasts free lunches, on-site dental care and dog-friendliness. Luminaries such as Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and Gwyneth Paltrow have visited, adding to the company's coolness factor.

Perks pay off?
Despite perks and eccentricity--or perhaps in part because of them--Google's IPO in August raised $1.66 billion. And even though the company used an auction-based approach expected to prevent the stock from sky-rocketing, the shares lately have been trading at more than twice the initial price of $85.

Over the past year or so, Google has expanded its technology reach well beyond Internet search. It has pushed into e-mail, desktop search, and digital video search --where it appears to have a more ambitious effort under way than Microsoft or Yahoo. Google's work, thus far, is broadly admired. A Microsoft employee recently tipped his hat to Google in a blog. "So now I have Gmail, the Google Toolbar, the Google Deskbar and the Google Desktop," the employee wrote. "I work for Microsoft. I own plenty of Microsoft stock. I want Microsoft to succeed. But right now, Google is kicking our butt."

The company, which is now hiring people ranging

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