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Google takes top prize in its own contest

The search site awards a New York programmer $10,000 in its first programming competition, but the company itself may be the real winner as it retains broad rights to all entries.

Just weeks after inviting the public into its labs to try out experimental technologies, Google on Friday announced the winner of a $10,000 contest that brought in a small fortune in programming contributions.

The winner of Google's first programming contest is Daniel Egnor, a New York programmer whose entry is designed to let searchers find Web pages within a designated geographical area.

While Egnor, an employee of a New York investment bank he would not name, walks away from the contest with $10,000, Google may be the real winner, reserving for itself a "worldwide, perpetual, fully paid-up, nonexclusive license to make, sell or use the technology related thereto, including but not limited to the software, algorithms, techniques, concepts, etc., associated with the entry."

Those broad rights apply not only to Egnor's winning entry, but to all the losing ones as well.

Honorable mentions include a variety of search technologies having to do with grouping semantic concepts, reducing Google's bias against newly authored pages, helping hyperlinks stay connected when their target moves, giving preference to pages containing every query term entered, and compressing index files.

The contest is one in a string of recent Google initiatives to interest software developers in its service and shore up what winner Egnor termed the company's "geek cred."

In April, Google released its application programming interfaces, letting developers tap into Google's 2 billion-document repository.

This month the search site opened its research and development labs, inviting commentary from the public.

"They need to maintain their position as a technology innovator," said Egnor. "They have competitors breathing down their neck, and they have to build a business model themselves, so they can't rest on their laurels. They have a lot of geek cred, which they need to maintain by doing cool things."

While both corporate-sponsored and grassroots open-source projects have long solicited programming contributions from developers at large, contests such as Google's are fewer and farther between. More common are challenges by security firms to break security algorithms.

In one troubled recent example, the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) offered $10,000 to anyone who could break its digital music security code. When a group of Princeton researchers did so, SDMI threatened them with legal action if they told anybody how to do it, setting off more legal wrangling.

Egnor, whose geographical search tool took him two months' worth of weekends to devise, has not decided where, or how, he will spend his prize money.