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Google: On beyond search

A couple months ago I spent a while trying to find a plain query page for Google's news search. But unlike, say, images.google.com or groups.google.com — both of which have little content but feature a prominent search box — news.google.com isn't set up to search; it's set up to read. No problem, I figured; if Google has special pages set up just for things like searches from wireless devices, they've got to have a page just for news searches somewhere, right?

As it turns out, no. I spent a while digging around; I couldn't find it. I looked at third-party lists of Google resources; nothing doing. I tried blank searches, and they redirect back to Google News' main page. The closest I came to a plain news search page was a search for a non-occurring string of letters, like xqx — not exactly the prettiest page on Google's site, you could say.

This was odd, I thought. Google's a search company, right? Google News makes perfect sense for them, I had figured, because it demonstrates how powerful their news search product is; it tells their users, if you are searching for news items, come to Google. So I was surprised that this page didn't seem to exist.

In fact, I was surprised enough that I decided to email Google. Does this page exist anywhere? I asked. I sure would find it useful, I said. I got a reply, but it wasn't what I expected, either. No, it doesn't exist, it said (more or less), and we don't as yet have any plans for it — but thank you for your feedback.

Oh. Well how about that? Google's company overview currently opens with the statement, "Google's mission is to deliver the best search experience on the Internet by making the world's information universally accessible and useful." So this was something different, then? Maybe there's a secret unit within Google — a shadow Google — and that was behind it all!

Actually, I didn't really think about it much — even though, looking back, it wasn't the only sign that Google Inc. was looking on beyond search. For instance, an article in BusinessWeek in January gave an overview of the competitive challenges Google has been facing in the past months, not least of which is that, as they put it, "More web giants are concluding that buying search results from Google is no bargain if Google.com is competing with them as a web destination." This is something that's been reported before — it isn't new — but it has an interesting implication for Google News and products like it: It means that they could very well be costing Google business for its search product.

That says more than a little, I think, about where Google thinks its future lies. Google probably doesn't ultimately see search as its defining feature if it's willing to risk increased competition in the search business in order to build other products like Google News — which it doesn't even bother to position as a search product even when it easily could.

And now, of course, Google has gone and bought a little company called Pyra Labs, makers of, of course, Blogger.

What does this purchase mean? There's one thing it couldn't mean, if you ask me: It's not about Google's search. Sure, weblogs are invaluable to the GoogleBot; they link various and diverse sites together and collectively weight some higher than others and generally bring things on the web much closer together, all good stuff. And owning Blogger's database of 200,000 or whatever active weblogs would make that work easier, yes. But it would threaten the quality of Google's search results at the same time. Google would have to be very careful not to weight a website's content or links any differently based on whether or not it itself was a Google property or the product of a Google service; if it didn't, the results wouldn't be trustworthy. Google's search is still probably the single most valuable product on the web (unless you can say eBay's auction service is a single product), and still defines the company to its users — it wouldn't pay to mess with it like that.

What's more, if Google really wanted to improve its search, it would ultimately want to tap into as many weblogs as efficiently as it could, and not just those run by Blogger. (See also Jeff Jarvis and Nick Denton's takes on that notion.) In that case, however, they'd be far better off partnering with Blogger, instead of buying Blogger and becoming direct competitors for other weblog-related companies. It's much easier to ask other companies to help you improve one of your products (Google's search) when you're not also trying to take their business away from them with another (Blogger). And cooperation (probably in the form of some agreed-upon standard for weblog data that Google's bots could scan more efficiently) would be necessary for Google to improve its search in that way.

So I don't think this deal is about search, any more than Google News apparently is about search. What it is about, I think, is the one thing that Google is about even more search — technology. And not just web technology, either, but, critically I think, the technology of networked information in general. Google News is valuable as a demo for search, but it has an even greater value as a demo model for an even more sophisticated technology — it's a tool that can not only find information, but arrange it in an extremely useful manner.

And this is all going somewhere, I don't doubt. It could easily be toward "enterprise-level" products, like the Google search appliance, which organizations use internally (an idea my friend Lilly suggested). Google News could be sold the same way: Imagine the Google News algorithms adjusted to build news pages focusing on a particular organization's (or department's, or team's, or, hell, individual's) areas of interest, for instance. That would be a hell of a product — giving Google News a far greater value than just as a demo for a news search tool.

And actually owning Blogger (as opposed to partnering with it) fits into this picture — selling technology applications to organizations — amazingly well. A centralized knowledge management tool (which could be Blogger or something like it) combined with not only a search but with Google News-like algorithms for tracking its content could have incredible value, especially to larger organizations. The Google News algorithms could build pages tracking what topics are of common concern throughout a company and update them almost instantaneously. Managers wouldn't just be able to track the organization's operations, they'd be able to see at a glance where its redundancies (both good and bad) lay; whether critical resources were being allocated well (or if multiple departments were competing for them, say); if specific (and possibly timely) concerns were shared, or isolated; and who knows what else. And all this data could of course be tied to time of day, week, month, quarter, or year, even, helping an organization address and even anticipate concerns that might affect its operations in any number of ways. And that's just a start. It's not search — it's a hell of a lot better than search.

Is this really what Google's up to? I have no idea. But Google's recent history does suggest a movement away from search and toward broader technologies in general; and that's also the best explanation I can see for its acquisition of Blogger. Google may be defined by its search for now, but it sure seems like, when it comes to technology for accessing information, the king of search wants to be just plain king.


Addendum: On the other hand, maybe it's just about weblogs. Who knows?

February 17, 2003 5:03 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

When you go to http://news.google.com , don't you see that little search bar up at the top? Of course it's a search page! Or do I somehow miss the thrust of your argument?

In fact, I've set up my Opera browser to do a Google News search when I type `news FOO' where FOO is my search term. The syntax of a Google News search is http://news.google.com/news?hl=en&q=SEARCH_TERM_HERE&btnG=Search+News .

Posted by Luis on February 20, 2003 7:08 PM

The point is just that Google hasn't set up a page designed to do nothing but search for news items -- which it has done for all the other types of content it crawls. So the Google News page, which is content heavy (and so loads slowly, and also requires an extra click into the search box if that's what you intend to do), is presumably an end in itself, and not just a demonstration of the news search.

Posted by M on February 20, 2003 10:09 PM

Righty-ho. I see your point now. One assumes the point Google is trying to make is something along the lines of

1)demonstrating its control over `the technology of networked information' (well put)

2)making itself indispensable in yet another way.

Posted by Luis on February 21, 2003 11:59 AM


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