Google Acquires Apture, Katango

So far this year, Google has acquired 23 companies…and the year isn’t over yet. Its two latest acquisitions, Apture and Katango, just might be game-changing. At the very least, they could put a serious crimp in the plans of the search engine’s competitors. One assists the search engine with its powerful yet still new social network, while the other could take its ability to monetize search to a whole new level.

We’ll start with Katango. This start-up company released an iPhone application in July that generates a list of Facebook friends. The science and algorithms behind it is a bit complicated for me. Here’s a video of Robert Scoble interviewing Katango co-founder/chairman Yoav Shoham on how their product works.

To protect their intellectual property, Shoham in the interview can hardly be more specific than “magic” when asked how it works. He does, however, explain that it took them a year to figure out how to work this particular brand of magic, and that it uses much more than comments, contacts, and “likes” to find and pull together appropriate clusters of friends.

Shoham offers tantalizing hints as to how Katango’s technology works during the video interview when he says that “Our starting point is a little different. Rather than take this torrent and try to learn it using various machine learning techniques, we start by trying to understand your relationships. And that becomes a very interesting filter through which to…understand how to give you something that’s pleasant and productive for you.”

Not long after Katango rolled out its application, Facebook revamped, adding more features and service – in part, some believe, in response to Google+ allowing users to join without requiring an invitation from someone who was already a Google+ member. The overhaul included a new Smart Lists feature that gave Katango serious competition. The social network’s new feature can autogenerate lists based on location or how people know each other.

While this Facebook update jeopardized Katango’s future as a third-party app for Facebook, there are other big social networks online – and many of them really appreciate a scrappy innovator. Indeed, Google’s founders and Katango’s founders share a school. Larry Page and Sergy Brin went to Stanford, where Yoav Shoham teaches computer science, and Katango co-founders Thuc Vu and Michael Munie received their PhDs.

Google acquired Katango for an undisclosed sum. How soon Google+ users will see benefits from the purchase (and the technology) is also unknown. But with Google making regular changes and tweaks to its social network, anything that will help its users find, sort and organize their friends will no doubt be very welcome. That’s especially true if the search engine can make it easier and more intuitive than similar features on Facebook.

But it’s the search engine’s latest acquisition that could really revolutionize their revenue stream. As Miranda Miller, writing for Search Engine Watch puts it, Google’s purchase of Apture “may give them the ability to monetize every page on the Web.” It sounds like an insane overstatement, but given Apture’s technology, it might not be.

What, exactly, does Apture do? This short video provides some tips. Basically, if you’re on a web page enabled with Apture’s technology, you can highlight a word and click to get more information about that topic – and here’s the important part – without leaving the page you’re on. When you click, a small window pops up with the information. And if you find something in THAT window on which you want more information, you can highlight and click again, and you still haven’t left your original page. At last, it’s a practical use for pop-ups!

Apture is perhaps best known for its Highlights plug-in showcasing this technology. The browser plug-in works in Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. Best of all, for those who want more than text, the kinds of search results it brings up in its little pop-up window include videos, news, and images. Apture also makes a white-label version of Highlights, used on such respected sites as Economist.com and The Financial Times. Miller notes that publishers use this version “to create an HTML-based overlay for readers to explore topics without leaving the page, using a single line of JavaScript.”

Apture is a slightly older start-up; founders Tristan Harris and Can Sar note that the company has been around since 2007. And they’ve been busy; in their announcement stating that they’re joining Google, the company notes that they’ve enhanced more than a billion pages with their products. Apture’s founders and employees will join the Google Chrome team, as indicated by the former noting in their announcement that “The modern web is an amazing platform, so stay tuned for even more enhancements to your Chrome browsing experience.”

Not surprisingly, this has led to some changes. Apture’s Highlights browser plug-in has already been taken out of the Chrome store. Miller reports that “All Apture plug-ins will shut down over the next month.” So what exactly will Google do with Apture’s technology now?

Miller envisions the search engine incorporating AdWords into this Highlights technology. Imagine the power of putting ads into every single one of those pop-up search bubbles. These ads would not be like those annoying pop-ups many of us have encountered on the web before; those ads often came unbidden. In this case, the ad would accompany an answer to a request for information, thus following the same pattern we’ve all become accustomed to when using a search engine in the conventional way.

“The potential for Google is huge,” Miller notes, as the search engine could start “effectively monetizing every single page viewed by Chrome users.” Is that more than a billion pages? Quite a bit more, as Chrome boasts 200 million monthly active users. There’s no telling what the click-through rate is likely to be, but given how precisely contextual the searches are, appropriately targeted ads could do very well indeed. My own personal guess is that you can expect to start seeing Google offer this kind of advertising in Chrome, in beta, as an AdWords option sometime in the first or second quarter of 2012. I’d rather not speculate on when or whether Microsoft will offer something similar with Internet Explorer. 

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