Google Launches Financial Information Service

Unless you actually make it your business to do so, it’s very tricky to keep up with all of Google’s new services. With the search engine giant’s track record for shaking up the industry with each new “beta,” you know whatever comes out of Google Labs is sure to be worth a look. Today, we’re going to look at Google Finance.

This service provides financial news, stock quotes, charts, and other data to its users. It has a number of novel features, such as the ability to look at financial news along side historical price charts over various time frames. News results change with the dates. It could be a very handy way to connect the price of a company’s stock with what was happening to the company at that time.

This offering didn’t come out of nowhere. Finance websites have proven to be immensely popular with web surfers. ComScore Media Metrix reported that such sites attracted 161 million visitors in January. That represents an increase of nearly a quarter over the previous year. Venerable search engine Yahoo! runs one of the most popular ones; its 10-year-old finance site boasted 34.3 million visitors in January, handily beating Microsoft’s MSN Money by more than 10 million visitors.

Yahoo! has said that it isn’t worried about Google’s new finance offering. It won’t even discuss what effect the new site will have on the field. In an interview, Yahoo! Finance General Manager Peggy White said that “Rather than concentrate on any one given competitor, we really look at creating superior products and a superior customer experience.”

So should Yahoo! and MSN be worried? Well, Google Finance doesn’t carry advertisements yet, but it will no doubt be only a matter of time. While Yahoo! is not as advertising-dependent as Google, such a move is likely to cut into Yahoo!’s business. In the interests of those who might want to use the service (for keeping track of their finances, or advertising with, or both), I thought it might be interesting to poke around Google Finance and see what it has to offer.

The first thing you see when you visit the Google Finance Beta is a Market Summary showing results for Nasdaq, Dow, S&P 500, and the NYSE. Right below that you see today’s headlines. Google is pulling from Google News with an algorithm that identifies financial stories and grabs them from around 4,500 different sources. Yahoo!, in contrast, relies on about 40 top editorial sources for its financial news.

So I figured I’d try it out by putting IBM into the search box. I got a page that showed me the stock’s high, the low, the volume, the 52-week high, 52-week low, and average volume. Below this was a chart of the stock’s performance over the last three business days. There were letters on the chart that corresponded to linked headlines on the right. It seemed as if Google thought there was some relation between the stories and the stock price (though it wasn’t obvious, at least to me, why IBM throwing new collaboration tools at the mid-market should somehow relate to a dip in IBM’s stock).

The chart is scrollable. When you scroll backward, you can also zoom in by using links to show one-day, five-day, one-month, three-month, six-month, and one-year views. After you click on the link to zoom in, more little letters in boxes appear on the chart, which correspond to more linked news headlines on the right. It’s a very cool feature if you’re interested in getting a historical view.

Scrolling down the two-column page, I saw a box with Company Facts, such as 2005 revenue and number of employees, and links to the IBM site that could give you other details about the company (news releases, history, executives, employment opportunities, and more). To the right of this was a box that included a company summary, with a link you could click for more information–which would be provided not by IBM in this case, but Reuters. Scrolling down some more, I saw more detailed company financials on the left, and a box detailing management on the right. Google gets points for coolness here: hold your cursor over one of the names, and you get a thumbnail photo of the executive (when available), when they became an officer, how old they are, and links to their bio and compensation (provided via Reuters) and their trading activity (provided, ironically enough, through Yahoo Finance!).

Get to the bottom of the page, and you see a section that details related companies, places you can go for more resources, and, over on the right, a section for blog posts. That’s another first for Google: providing blog posts covering financial news alongside financial news information written by journalists. As Google puts it in the FAQ, “If you want the opinions of citizen journalists, you got’em; Google Finance includes company-related postings from Google Blog Search.”

The three that came up talked about IBM’s researchers using nanotubes as transistors in integrated circuits; IBM sponsoring NCAA basketball and the possible fallout from that; and Lenovo’s new laptop moving away from its IBM heritage. There was a link at the bottom to more blogs covering IBM-related subjects. Indeed, in general, the page contained all the links to sources for just about all the information you could ever hope to see.

One of the resources listed was a discussion group in Google Finance. I clicked that link, half-expecting to be taken to a bulletin board. Instead, I got a link to a thread with the topic of “Long term view on IBM stock.” While there was only one message in the discussion, it was more efficient than going to the board.

I noticed, though, that the search box at the top of this page gave me the option of searching discussions or searching finance. So, for the heck of it, I decided to run a search on Intel. Surprisingly, this didn’t match any documents! Hmmm. I tried again with Apple. Again, it didn’t match. It took me a moment to realize the search was limiting itself to the IBM thread. I went back to Google Finance, conjured a page for Apple, and then looked for the discussion group resource in the same place as I had found it for IBM. To my surprise, it wasn’t there. Instead, right under the blogs, there was another box, labeled “Discussions,” with links to several ongoing discussions about Apple. There must have been about 25 of them. I guess Apple investors are much chattier than IBM investors!

The discussion group is in Google Groups. While many if not most of the forums on Google Groups are unmoderated, the groups in Google Finance do feature moderators. Their job is to keep the discussions spam- and flame-free. Google already has a list of rules for its finance community, accessible from Google Finance’s FAQ.

Getting back to my investigations, I clicked on the link to go back to Google Finance while I decided what to do next. To my surprise, I wasn’t presented with the same Google Finance home page I saw when I started. This one was in a two-column format. The first column looked the same as what I saw before. The second column included recent stock quotes for both Apple and IBM, as well as links to news stories about both companies.

In order to create a portfolio with Google, I needed to have an account. As it happens, I already have one, so all I had to do was sign in. Google pulled up the last page I’d created, which was for Apple. A new “Portfolio” link appeared at the top of the page, which I clicked. It took me to a screen with three textboxes labeled “Symbol,” “Price,” and “Shares,” and one button, “Add to Portfolio.” I put in the symbol for Apple. A horizontal gray bar appeared, with columns labeled “Symbol,” “Last Trade,” “Change,” “Buy Price,” “Shares,” “Investment,” “Current Value,” “Gain/Loss,” and “Delete.” The only information filled in was in the first three columns. Most of the information seemed pretty self-explanatory to me; it put just about everything you’d want to know about a stock in your portfolio at your fingertips.

There was a new button on the screen labeled “Edit portfolio.” Clicking that allowed me to fill in “Buy Price” and “Shares.” It also replaced the “Edit portfolio” button with two others, “Save changes and “Cancel.” Just to test it out, I typed in 50.00 and 100, respectively, then hit “Save changes.” Acting like a spreadsheet, the application filled in the rest of the information for me, showing that I was in the green by nearly $1000. (I wish!). Clicking a box that appeared under the “Delete” section got rid of the information.

So, after having tried it out, what do I think of Google Finance? It’s basic, to the point of being almost rudimentary. But it has some rather nice features, and I like the way it places so many things right at your fingertips. It really lets you interact with the data in whatever way you feel ready to handle. I can’t say whether it’s better or worse than its competitors, because time constraints did not permit me to compare all of them head to head. But I understand that Yahoo! offers many more features, including links to retirement planning, bonds, options, and downloadable spreadsheets for making finance calculations. Yahoo! and MSN are also beginning to offer original content.

I expect, though, that Google may start adding those features over the next few months. Right now Google Finance is a workable beta that particularly beginning investors should find helpful for keeping track of their stock portfolios. It still has its flaws; for example, it currently covers only some international companies, and it is not yet available for countries outside of North America (though Google is looking to expand in both those areas). Considering that this is still a “beta,” I expect it won’t be too long before Google has a major contender on its hands.

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