Google (GOOG) CEO Larry Page and co-founder Sergey Brin often get props for their brains. But Google being named the best place to work in America by Fortune on Thursday may also have something to do with their noses.

From the company’s earliest days, the co-founders — who are said by some of the company’s first employees to share an acute sense of smell and sensitivity to toxins — have had an intense focus on air quality, as one way to create a work environment second to none. The company says its air quality rivals a hospital rather than an office building, and it has long scrutinized all building materials — including, literally, a sniff test — to make sure they are free of chemicals with any health impact.

Although Fortune’s article, which lauds famous Google perks like free food, drinks and massages, doesn’t mention the air, company insiders cite it as an indication of Google’s intense focus on employee well-being. “We’re really thinking about long-term health effects,” said Anthony Ravitz, who heads the “Green Team” for Google’s Real Estate & Workplace Services. “How can we extend the life span of our employees by 30 years?”

Not a bad perk. capped a year when it hired about 7,000 people, the most intense growth spurt in the search giant’s 13-year history, with one of the most recognized human relations honors in corporate America on Thursday, moving up from fourth to first on Fortune’s annual pecking order of the 100 Best Companies to Work For. The last time it topped the list was in 2007.

Last year, business software company SAS, based in North Carolina, came in first.

Other Bay Area companies also made the list, including Sunnyvale’s NetApp at No. 6; Mountain View’s Intuit (INTU), No. 19; San Francisco’s Salesforce.com, No. 27; San Jose’s Adobe Systems (ADBE), No. 41; Santa Clara’s Intel (INTC), No. 46; San Rafael’s Autodesk, No. 52; South San Francisco’s Genentech, No. 68; and San Jose’s Cisco Systems (CSCO), at No. 90.

There’s no doubt Google has substantial perks — ranging from the new 40,000-square-foot athletic fields and park that the company built for employees at its Mountain View headquarters last year, to the fleet of electric Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs that Googlers can check out for free, to its efforts to create a healthy environment.

Less clear, experts say, is whether what Google describes as a focus on people rather than perks, has a direct payoff on the bottom line. There is evidence, said Stanford management science professor Bob Sutton, that treating employees well does pay off.

“There are large industry studies that show, on average, the firms that treat their workers do better over the long haul,” Sutton said.

But that’s not to say Google, despite all the workplace benefits, is nirvana. It can be a pressurized place to work, even with micro-kitchens stocked with free food.

“It’s not about bringing these perks to work, and you work a 40-hour week” at Google, said Charlene Li, founder of Altimeter Group. “It’s that you have all these perks that enable you to work much more than 40 hours a week.”

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