Google’s Next Step

For years, Google has been the company to beat in the online search sector. Use of the company’s search engine is so widespread that in a recent TV movie, the main character joked that she attended “Google University” to research her health problems. Many people also have begun using the company name as a verb, a la “Did you Google it?”

However, Google is not content to rest on its prior success and casually watch Ally Sheedy promote it on TV. Several initiatives are in the works to expand the company’s reach even further and keep it at the top of the search heap.

So, as the economy slowly turns around and begins to inch upward, what can users expect from Google?

Mission Critical

Since Google launched in 1998, the company has seemed focused on more than just building the best possible search engine. From developing search technology for wireless devices to creating non-English language versions, it has expanded as quickly as many dot-coms did in the late 1990s. However, Google’s foundation seems exponentially more solid than the underpinnings of those ill-fated startups.

“Our whole mission is to organize the world’s information,” said Google spokesperson Nate Tyler. He told the E-Commerce Times that the company is constantly optimizing its systems to improve its search capability.

Beyond that, Google increasingly has targeted enterprise customers as well as consumers. Its enterprise search appliances are selling at a brisk rate, allowing companies to perform internal searches of their documents and databases.

As Tyler said, “Our vision is that the Web is important, but good search is also about trying to organize information within the firewall.”

Local Hero

Another area that Google has been exploring is local search — giving users the ability to find companies in their area, even if those businesses do not have Web sites.

Forrester principal analyst Charlene Li told the E-Commerce Times that although Yellow Pages listings have been online for a while, the union between local directory listings and the Web has not been entirely successful.

“The idea is that local businesses spend a lot of money for advertising, but not much of it online. So, in the past, it didn’t make sense to drag them online, it wasn’t effective,” she said.

However, by creating a program that lets users type in a search term along with a ZIP code or city name, Google will let people find local listings — and this tactic could significantly boost advertising revenue.

In its quest to go local, Google is competing with Overture Services, which is in the process of being acquired by Yahoo. Overture has estimated the local-search ad market could be worth US$1 billion by 2008. The race between Google and Overture to capture the lion’s share of this lucrative sector could prove to be worth watching.

“It’s a large undertaking,” Li said. “But when it gets off the ground, it should be interesting.”

Photo Finish

In another vein, it might seem peculiar that Google — a site renowned for its clean design — has been hard at work scanning paper catalogs and collecting product shots from e-tailers.

However, the photos will not be used to illustrate the site. Instead, the company will use the images to boost the effectiveness of its comparison-shopping search application, called Froogle.

“They’ve been scanning like crazy,” Li said. “With Froogle, you’ll be able to type in a term like ‘baby shoes’ and get images of what’s for sale across the Web.”

The initiative fits well with other Google offerings, such as its image search section and especially Google Catalogs, which allows users to browse mail-order catalogs online.

Changes and Challenges

Aberdeen Group research director Guy Creese told the E-Commerce Times that Google is somewhat of a moving target. Even as it is moving toward focusing on enterprise customers, it also is beefing up its offerings for consumers.

“I’d say that they’re continually trying to make the back end more sophisticated,” he said, “while making the front end clean and sweet.”

This constant motion is an effective growth strategy, but it is also a necessity. As more people become comfortable searching for information online, Google must move to accommodate them. Maintaining a wide reach and expanding in the future will require the ability to think ahead.

“They’re one of the few remaining vendors doing both general search and enterprise,” Creese said. “Most of their competitors are doing one or the other. But I don’t think it’s stretching their resources. Even when it goes against the market, Google is smart about it.”

Wave of the Future

The company may have to use those smarts to keep up with future demands for more personalization. Creese noted that a network engineer who searches for the term “ATM” is not looking for automated teller machines, and future iterations of the Google engine will have to find a way to sort suchresults appropriately.

“Only by understanding my interests and what I’ve browsed in the past will search be able to be really refined for consumers,” Creese says. “They know they’ll have to do something along these lines in the future. But if anyone can do it, it’s Google.”

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