Google News Roundup

Google is having a busy December. Amid the rumors and the product introductions, here are just four news items that seem to stand out. Each topic highlights an important direction or issue for the online search giant.

I’ll start with one for the advertisers – or, more precisely, those who might consider advertising on Google if they had a web site. Most AdWords ads point to a web site, which leaves many small local businesses out in the cold. If you’re spending all your time (and most of your money) trying to keep your restaurant or hardware store running, you don’t have the time to build a web site or money to pay someone else to do it. But many web sites, including Google, have been improving local searches, so this would be a great way to get spotted by local prospective customers. What can you do?

Google has an answer. It’s offering free web hosting to businesses that sign up for AdWords Starter Edition. You won’t be getting a full-fledged web site, which is probably a relief to business owners who didn’t have the time to build one in the first place. It’s a single page, which will act as the landing page for your AdWords ad. You can include some simple information like your address, phone number, and any special services.

Google’s Inside AdWords blog depicts a sample page for the fictitious company “Mario Loves Pasta, Inc.” It includes the company name, address, two phone numbers (main phone and fax), an email address with Google’s GMaill service (nice product placement there!), business hours, credit cards accepted, a sizable paragraph that describes the company, and an image. No knowledge of HTML is required to set up a hosted business page with Google.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that “hosted business pages are accessible only through links on AdWords ads,” so someone searching specifically for your company may not find it in Google Search results. Still, it’s a good move for Google in its efforts to reach anyone and everyone who might be interested in search engine advertising.

It also builds on Google’s efforts to make it easy to advertise with it, and it might give the search engine even more of an edge on search. Think about it: these small, local businesses would sign up for this service because they don’t have web sites – and if they don’t have web sites, how are MSN, Yahoo, and other search engines going to index them? It’s a great way for Google to deliver more, and more relevant, results to searchers, even if they only show up in the sponsored links.

Techcrunch had a brief, interesting article recently about rumors concerning YouTube, Metacafe, and a number of the major television networks. It seems that the networks saw what YouTube was doing and wanted a piece of it; they were even working on building their own online video service joint venture months before Google acquired YouTube. The technology would have been very simple, since it’s Flash-based; it’s the legal kicker that would have really added the spice.

The plan was that the networks would license their online rights to content to this YouTube competitor. So anyone who visits that site would be able to watch full TV episodes online, legally. At the same time the site is launched, the networks would launch a massive lawsuit against YouTube, forcing it to pull any content that violates the networks’ copyrights. That would leave the new joint venture by the networks as the only place one could go online to watch TV.

It may sound like a truly nefarious scheme, but it certainly would have been legal. Why hasn’t it happened? Well, apparently, trying to get the networks to agree on anything is rather like herding cats. Techcrunch claims that Viacom and Disney have dropped out of the discussions entirely. As for the ones that are still involved, there was some disagreement as to how revenues from advertising would be split among them. And then there’s Google, which has dangled serious amounts of money in front of the networks if they will let YouTube keep their content.

So will this “YouTube killer” ever launch? Techcrunch quoted “insiders” as giving the deal a 50-50 chance, and said that Metacafe is the most likely acquisition target for getting it started. But these moves by television networks (FOX, NBC, and CBS were said to be continuing discussions) highlight the one area that Google hasn’t gone into yet: television. YouTube is its first real step in that direction.

MediaPost’s Cory Treffiletti recently wrote an article that pointed out television as the one area that is “conspicuously absent in Google’s arsenal” and saw some kind of entry in television advertising as the “logical next step in the ascension of the world’s largest single media company.” The networks probably realize this, and seem to be running scared. Look for this TV theme to become more dominant in the months ahead – unavoidably so by mid-2007, but that’s just a guess on my part.

Okay, it’s not news to anyone that Google loves open source. But recently, the company turned the Google Web Toolkit (GWT) into an open source project. While the GWT has been around for at least eight months (and probably longer), it was originally closed. It is now open to developers.

What is the GWT? It’s an open source Java development framework that makes it easier to write AJAX applications. Google’s own description explains that “With GWT, you can develop and debug AJAX applications in the Java language using the Java development tools of your choice. When you deploy your application to production, the GWT compiler translates your Java application to browser-compliant JavaScript and HTML.”

GWT is being released under the Apache 2.0 open source license. It can be used to develop non-commercial, commercial, and enterprise applications. Naturally Google uses GWT in the company’s own projects, such as GMail, Google Maps, and Google Calendar. GWT even has its own blog and discussion group; the blog’s first entry was dated August 26, 2006, with the December 12 entry triumphantly announcing that the current release candidate, GWT 1.3, is 100 percent open source.

Google does believe in giving back to the community as part of their “don’t be evil” mission, and this is one way to do that. In fact, one could argue that the company’s goal from the very beginning wasn’t just to “organize all of the world’s information” but to improve the Internet experience for everyone. In the GWT blog, the project’s Tech Lead, Bruce Johnson, explained that their mission is “To radically improve the web experience for users by enabling developers to use existing Java tools to build no-compromise AJAX for any modern browser.”

Google even has a page on “Making GWT Better” that explains its philosophical approach to building GWT and breaks the mission statement down a phrase at a time to explain its meaning. The page also explains what GWT isn’t about (language wars, bait and switch, etc.). It really emphasizes that everything is done for the end user. This is an important theme; it has played no small factor in Google’s success so far, and you can expect to see it continue into the future for as long as Google is successful.

Google has been competing with Yahoo ever since it was born, and not just as a search engine. While Google’s search engine is clearly more popular than Yahoo’s, Yahoo still boasts more popular services in certain areas. Take Yahoo! Finance, for example. According to a blogger writing for Ant & Sons, “Google Finance…has yet to pose a real threat to Yahoo Finance, the so-called behemoth of the online financial networks, as it currently offers a wealth of financial resources that Google still lacks, and an untouched following of thirty million unique visitors.”

Apparently this concerns some people at Google, because the company has added a slew of new features to Google Finance. These include the following:

  • A new home page designed to include more data in an easy to read format. The new page includes recent quotes, today’s news, a more detailed market summary, market performance, and top movers modules.
  • A new market summary module that includes performance information from the Dow, NASDAQ, S&P 500 and currency and exchange rate information.
  • A sector summary that shows you at a glance how major sectors are performing in the U.S. financial market on that day. You can get more detailed information by scrolling over bar charts and/or clicking on the name of a particular sector.
  • Enhanced Finance portfolios that include transactional support and functionality such as fields for purchase date, commission, and a notes section to help you keep better track of your investments.
  • Personalized chart settings that allow you to choose default settings for your charts that fit your investment style, whether you’re focused on the long term, the short term, or somewhere in between.

This is not a complete list of the changes and upgrades that Google has made to Google Finance. Combined with the fact that Google closed its Google Answers service, though, it sends a message of sorts. The company is beginning to realize it can’t do everything – something rival search engine Yahoo seems to have found out only belatedly. On the other hand, Google is prepared to marshal its resources to fight the battles it thinks it can win.

But will it win this one? Does it need to? WebProNews had this to say: “Aesthetically, the improvements are a slam-dunk…Functionality is improved, but still lacks some important detail…With continued focus on providing the utmost of detail to the user, Google could eventually give Yahoo! a run for its money…But at least for now, Yahoo! still holds the advantage.” This sounds very much like many other services Google has offered (Google Spreadsheets comes to mind) – they provide some very good functionality that many users want, but not quite enough for power users.

Google may not need to change this formula to continue to be successful, at least as long as its main product remains the market leader in its field. Perhaps Google isn’t trying to win this particular battle so much as stay prominently in the game and make everybody nervous. That by itself may be worth doing, from Google’s point of view. That’s one theme that’s likely to continue; you can probably count on Google keeping everyone on their toes for the next couple of years at least.

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