The geeks'-choice search engine is sponsoring its "First Annual Google Programming Contest," offering $10,000 to the person or team that can come up with the best software program for compressing, organizing, linking or otherwise manipulating a mass of raw search data.
In return, Google gets to keep the idea--forever. The company won't pay any royalties, although the winner can sell it to anyone else who wants it.
On a Web site notice announcing the contest, Google says it's doing it for fun, "in celebration of more than three years of delivering the best search experience on the Internet." Any wildly profitable ideas that come out of it would just be a fringe benefit.
"We wanted to give people, especially students, a chance to do fun stuff themselves," said Uls Hoelze, a "Google Fellow" who is helping lead the project. "We want to encourage people to be creative."
Online contests have been a mixed bag in the past, occasionally stirring up trouble.
Most notoriously, the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) offered $10,000 to hackers who could break the security technology it was planning to add to digital music files. When a group of Princeton researchers promptly did so, SDMI threatened to take them to court if they actually told anybody how to do it, setting off another string of legal wrangling.
Google's contest is more of an old-fashioned code-off, however. The company is providing anybody interested with the raw search data representing about 900,000 Web pages and a basic program for interpreting that information.
What's next is up to the creative minds of the programming masses. The company suggests a few ideas, such as better ways to compress the data for storage purposes, to organize it or to identify links. Presumably a creative coder could instead figure out how to translate the pages automatically into Dutch or make an animated Lion King sing the appropriate URLs.
"Part of your job is to convince us of why your program is interesting," the company writes. "Other than that, you're free to implement whatever strikes your fancy."
The winning entry may be added to Google's portfolio of Web applications, but there's no guarantee. Teams interested in the prize can enter as many times as they want, and all entries are due by April 30.