I’ve been playing around with the new beta service of Google Groups 2 for a couple of days now, and it has sparked a few random thoughts in my tiny noggin. So, for those who might be interested, I would like to present my personal ‘foggy crystal ball’ view of where Google might be heading in future. (click on images for full size)
The Google magic
The Groups beta is fascinating stuff. It’s totally, absolutely and completely on Yahoo! turf. So basically this is the start of a real, not phony, war peeps, and my money is on the G-men. Why? Well they have a proven record of producing simple to use, and more importantly, hugely useful products. Yahoo! in contrast has turned into a bit of a mess down the years – a cobbled together collection of disparate applications which barely fit together at all, and which offer a range of different user interfaces.
The Google interface is legendary in its simplicity. Proof? Take a look at the screen shots of the new Google Groups interface. Nothing on the screen that isn’t necessary.
Compare with Yahoo! Messy? You bet. It took 1 screen in the Google setup to accomplish something that needed 6 screens in Yahoo!
So the war is definitely going to be interesting in the trenches. Not least because Google is at last starting to unfurl its battle colours properly. Not only has the company launched a new Groups beta hot on the heels of the Gmail service, but it has also set up a single sign up process for all its services, opened a Google Store and folded the API development offering into the whole shebang. The result is that suddenly the company has a complete product set ready to take on the world – wireless services, shopping, blogging, community groups, email, web search and web tools. And all united by powerful search and impressive simplicity. My, how you’ve grown grandma!
It was while pondering these facts that suddenly I had something of a revelation. I – and probably a lot of others – have up till now been focusing on Google as this behemoth of a search company. As the 600 lb dotcom gorilla, which aims to control the web and all who use it, Microsoft style. But I think that we could be wrong. I believe that Google may be aiming to become something else entirely.
Is Google trying to become the world’s biggest advertising company?
Strange idea, huh? Well here’s my thinking.
It’s clear, looking at the new Groups beta, that this is yet another really cool pipe for Google’s targeted advertising system, AdSense and AdWords. In fact all of the company’s recent product releases have focussed around services which are perfect platforms for picking up on our tastes, habits and needs, thereby improving the value of their advertising. Email, weblogs, communities, search. Getting the picture yet?
Build a good enough context sensitive advertising platform and suddenly you can charge what you like, because the advertisers will kill for that kind of targeted conduit. The key phrase here is ‘good enough’. I don’t think that the boffins at G are anywhere near that stage with their context targeting technology, but why not set up the advertising pipes anyway, while you’re working to perfect the rest? Don’t forget that the company has just announced opt-in image ads, so text ads are even going technicolour! Nor is contextual relevance restricted solely to taste or content. I’m in the process of setting up an AdWords box which will be seen only by people within a 20 mile range of my target latitude and longitude. Regional ad targeting? Pah, no problem.
So far what I’ve been saying is probably really obvious, but actually it changes the whole concept of Google’s place in the world. Instead of treating it simply as the mother of all search engines, perhaps we should begin to realise that the company is really only interested in building the biggest, most powerful, most efficient advertising platform the world has ever seen? Forget about massive clusters of computers to deliver search, why not to deliver ad space – anywhere, any time? Follow this train of thought and other things start to gel too. They’re not interested in dominating the Internet or owning email, or controlling any other service, unless it gives them access to millions of eyeballs – carrying wallets. Or plastic. Isn’t it feasible that their only mission is to deliver as many refined, highly targeted commercials to as many people as they can, as efficiently as possible? Search? Fergedaboutit!
It follows therefore that Google will continue to look for opportunities to extend that advertising network, irrespective of the direction this takes them. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them one day buy into a completely offline play, if they think that it will improve their reach capabilities even more. Google owning an international airline? Maybe, if they can figure out a way to get enough of us to click through the advertising on our barcoded ticket stubs with our cameraphones. Or a movie studio, or record company or…..?
Google as 21st century television
Of course it’s numbers that’s the real deal for them. And this is where a connection with television starts to make sense. We often forget that the real success of television was solely down to the fact that businesses suddenly recognized an easy way to deliver their message to the massed ranks of consumers for very little effort. No more need for teams of roving salesmen in every town. Do we forget that soap operas were created simply to sell more detergent to daytime housewife viewers?
Now transpose that advertising platform, but extend it and give it a global reach. And improve the targeted nature of the advertising exponentially over time. What do you have? Yep, the Big G. So doesn’t it make sense to see Google for what it really is, or wants to become? A massive, incredibly efficient, global advertising platform – which learns a little more about us every day from our Internet use, and sends us highly targeted ‘opt-in’ – yes we agree to accept this stuff – advertising, which will be matched to our exact wants, needs and desires from moment to moment. It’s a dream the television execs of national, loosely targeted, programming services can only dream of today.
So what could be next for the Google of the future? Could we, for instance, see them moving into Amazon.com territory as a general retailer? Well, why not? What better way to refine their targeted advertising than by learning exactly what we buy, as we buy it. Sure, a web search points to things we’re roughly interested in, but the ka-ching of a cash till pinpoints it exactly, down to the shoe size.
The opt-in Robin Hood.
The only difference I see between the NBC and ABCs broadcasters of yesteryear and the Google of today is that the former dealt very much with our desires – creating an aspirational society via broadcasts of the American Dream – whilst the latter is all about fulfilling our needs (what do we want, and how much do we need it?). OK so desire and need are kissing cousins, but bear with me here, OK? Google is well on its way to identifying exactly what we need through our weblogs, searches, communities, email messages and whatever else it takes. Over time as they learn more about us, they will refine and polish the advertising that is beamed to our phones, computers, PDAs and beyond. Until one day they reach an assumed goal – to send us advertising which only relates to something that we need or want to buy right at that moment (or – and this is spooky – something which we need, but haven’t realised that we need yet).
In many ways the Google business model is the complete antithesis of the spammer ideal. Instead of shotgun advertising returning 0.1% response and a 0.1% conversion rate thereafter, targeted advertising – as the specialist portals like music and health realised early on – is much, much more effective and valuable. In some cases we’re talking 12% response, with a 5% conversion to sale. That can be big big money when you’re talking about hundreds of millions of viewers. And colossal sums if we look at hundreds of millions, maybe even billions, of Internet users. No more Viagra unless you mentioned impotence in the last email to your best friend, (having already done a quick search on sexual problems, visited an alt.sex.counselling group or subscribed to a new Dr Spock weblog). No more car insurance spam unless you’ve done a search for a new Ford Lincoln Mercury, or you blogged about your break down last night, or the other half emailed you at work to remember to pick up some more diapers on the way home. Forget the funky Internet services and the geek theology, they’re the icing on the cake, just like the TV programs and celebrity gossip are the lures to get our eyeballs glued to the Kelloggs ads. It’s the click through dollars that count, dude!
Not even a hill of beans.
Of course this is just my little theory. Call it fanciful, one possible scenario among many, if you will. I have no real hard evidence to back it up, save a little experience working for a dotcom a few years ago. A community site which, post-IPO, ended up focusing more on pushing advertising revenues skywards than on cherishing the community that created it.
So let’s watch out for the new Google machine, shall we? They genuinely may not want to ‘do evil’, but even so, I think that it will be safer if we start to lose our somewhat adolescent and starry eyed approval of their geek friendly credentials, and keep a watchful eye on their moves. They may be talking the Net’s talk right now, but I suspect that once the IPO falls, they’ll be walking to the sound of quite a different jingle altogether.