The efforts of these companies did not go unnoticed. Google and Twitter, for example, have made significant market gains in Japan since the disaster.
Google's market share spiked from 49.2 percent in March 2011 to 54.6 percent in August 2012, according to Internet analytics company ComScore. The number of monthly visitors to Twitter Japan jumped from 19.5 million in March 2011 to 21.8 million in August 2012, even as its closest competitor in the country, Mixi, dropped from 18.3 million visitors to 12.5 million during the same time span.
Since the earthquake, Google has been embraced by the Japanese business community and is seen as more than a global technology behemoth, said Mak Arima, Google's Japan managing director. "(Japanese) have told me, 'Now, we can see your face more clearly than before.' "
The Japanese government is considering standardizing Twitter's use for emergency communications.
Japan was probably the first industrialized nation to be hit with a catastrophic disaster in which social media played a major role because most people are equipped with Internet-enabled mobile devices, said James Kondo, who heads up Twitter's Japan operations. But lessons learned here will be valuable elsewhere, he said. "This is not a Japan solution, but a global solution."
The ubiquity of the services made them an instant lifeline in Japan.
Person Finder became an instant sensation as Japanese frantically searched for loved ones. The service allows those desperately looking for loved ones to create entries about them in a searchable database. The entries can be accessed and updated by others as information about family members and friends comes to light. So even if those looking for loved ones could not contact them directly, many were able to get information on the well-being and whereabouts of family and friends from Person Finder updates, sometimes supplied by strangers.
Shortly after launching Person Finder, Google asked people to take pictures of handwritten posters at evacuation centers and upload them on Google's Picasa online photo-sharing service. Google employees, who transcribed the names from the photos onto Person Finder, were quickly overwhelmed.
"It was almost out of control," recalled Google engineering manager Hideto Kazawa.
Within weeks, 10,000 photos were uploaded onto Picasa and some 5,000 volunteers from around the world pitched in to transcribe the names onto Person Finder. In the end, more than 140,000 names were entered into Person Finder, which was accessed by more than 600,000 users.
Satoru Kikuta, a Tokyo computer engineer, used Person Finder to search for 40 friends and family in his home city of Kesennuma along the northeastern coast of Japan, where the tsunami left bodies strewed on streets and boats perched precariously in the center of town.
Kikuta, who passed along information to family members about loved ones as he gleaned it from Person Finder, called Google's emergency service "indispensable." Not all the news he received was good, though: A friend was swept away by the tsunami.
"If you can't get information about your loved ones, you spend all your time searching. You cannot do anything else," said Kikuta, who at one point during the disaster passed out from exhaustion. "I am very grateful to Google."
THE INTERNET IN A DISASTER
During last year's massive earthquake in Japan, millions of Japanese were unable to make phone calls. However, they could send tweets, emails and check sites like Google Maps to help them navigate the disaster. Why does the Internet seems more robust than phone networks? "Phone networks are only designed for a certain number of users at any one time," said Rakesh Bharania, a member of Cisco Systems' emergency response operations. So in a crisis, when significantly more people than usual make phone calls simultaneously, the network becomes overloaded, Bharania said. While data networks also see a surge in traffic, Bharania said, "what most people send on those networks are text -- Web pages, tweets and so on." And text data uses a relatively smaller portion of bandwidth than voice data does, he said.
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