SearchTHIS: All Things Google

If Forest Gump were alive today, he might be saying “Google is as Google does, Ma'am.” What else can you say about a now publicly-owned (sort of) search site and brand that has impacted our Internet lives in so many ways? How about, it’s not just a search engine anymore.

Would be hopefuls of search traffic seek top listings by dumping buckets of cash into optimization strategies. Google AdWords advertisers pay equal or greater amounts of cash into trying to figure out how to maintain top pay-for-placement listings; publishers reap plenty of dough from content clicking AdSense listings placed (sometimes) strategically on their sites. But that wasn’t enough for Google.

Google has a shopping engine, news search, images, blogging, discussion groups, and even that didn’t satisfy the Googlers. 

The past few weeks have seen a flurry of post Instigated Public Optimization activity from the all-things-search giant that indicate there is enough cash around for them to try new things. In addition to mail, a user can now browse books, find local businesses, instant message with Google flair, and there are a dozen other things currently in the Google lab. Some of these initiatives represent advertising opportunities. Others don’t. But they’re all worth a look because, often, after a few rounds in the lab the next thing you know there’s an ad coming your way. 

Mail me what now?

Lots of people are terrified that Google might actually be reading their email because Google looks for relevant keywords and places advertiser links on to the right of email content. Personally, I live by the “Don’t write anything in email that you wouldn’t write to your mother” guideline for email, but this doesn’t work for everyone.

There was so much inaccurate and negative buzz about Gmail that Google launched a full disclosure page about their practices. Among the most notable revelations are facts that advertisers never see email content and, more importantly, human beings don’t see the content at all. Ads are dynamically generated using automated systems. Also content is screened to make ad serving “Family-Safe.” That’s all well and good, but how does it stand up to live scrutiny?

I sent a bunch of emails to a friend using Gmail. I wrote about vacations, advice on search marketing careers, and in one, I quoted a blog about a certain hotel-chain heiress’ recent exploits in home video along with some vacation planning information. The travel email included keywords such as “Flights,” “Hotels,” and the job searching email included such keywords as “resume,” and “job hunting.” The combination travel-and-adult-video email contained the same vacation words along with, well, use your imagination.

My friend and I opened the “jobs in search” email first. Ads from human resources consultants appeared along with executive search firms. The vacation email carrying MPAA “G” rated content showed ads for travel sites. The “NC-17” or better rated content got no ads at all.

Conspiracy theorists are all over Gmail, but privacy issues aside the mail component of content-targeted ads represent the same non-directive search restricted ad opportunities as contextual search.

Ladies and gentlemen of the email scanning jury, I would like to point out two things. One; almost every email service scans email for one reason or another, such as spam filtering. Two, access to more performance-based contextual inventory is not a bad thing.

Books and Google Print

As Amazon digs deeper into search with A9, another beta release called book browsing or Google Print helps searchers find books. The interface serves as an additional option in search results for Google providing users with the ability to look inside books, just like Amazon does, although with a few exceptions.

Since it was only recently launched, Google does not offer the sheer number of books one finds at Amazon, but plans to expand are already underway. Google offers multiple retailer options to buy while Amazon only offers the “Buy New or Used.”

Unlike Amazon, Google doesn’t directly profit from the sale of books that you browse. They have chosen instead only reap click revenue from contextually placed listings on book publisher pages.

Again, more contextual inventory for advertisers is not a bad thing.

Search your own content

Certainly not new and definitely not new in the advertiser opportunity category, the Google Search Appliance is an out of the box tool for site owners to help index content on their own Web sites and intranets. Google uses its ranking and relevancy factors (over 100) to help make content readily available on public and private web sites.

Among the top features are automatic spell checking and conversion of Microsoft office documents into HTML, a unique hypertext analysis ranking methodology, and a very large (by industry standards) group of engineers who do nothing but try to sort out search problems… all in a neat little stand alone appliance.

They’ve got news for you

Visitors to can search around 4,500 global news services using Google's traditional algorithmic ranking format. Most popular stories are ranked according to keywords searches.

Similar to other types of push news services, Google Alerts provides Web users with the ability to receive keyword-driven news in their inboxes at random intervals. I am not currently getting ads in my news alerts, but since the service is highly relevant and contextually keyword driven, this seems like an obvious place for future ad listings.

Local and mobile messaging

For as long as I can remember, Yellow pages publishers have worried that the online versions of their directories signified the death of big yellow books made of wood fiber. Every day we move closer and closer to that point. Paid search sites are launching local components of primary directive search areas, but the biggest threats to phone books are always on broad connections combined with new wireless applications.

For Google Local, the “natural” or “organic” local listings cannot be influenced by advertising dollars. Instead, massive site crawls along with, you guessed it, yellow pages data serve as local content guidelines to provide a truly unbiased local experience. Local targeting with AdWords, however, creates something of a dichotomy in that advertisers designate local areas thereby offering the chance of a less relevant local search result.

Most recently, Google’s local component has reached into the wireless world. While I haven’t really been able to try the Short Message Service (SMS) service (my Sprint Treo 600 has decided to go on permanent “Network Search” disability), the new service purports to offer a local interaction via a multitude of wireless providers, without ads.

Top on my list of useful applications for this service is finding a place to eat while on the road. The problem with text messaging for anything but pizza parlors and the like is that text messages don’t show ambience, pricing, dress codes, or reputation. For now, a simple phone number will have to do.

Google Groups and brand history

Want to chat with people who are into the ancient art of torture stretching in blistering heat (a.k.a. Bikram Yoga) just like you? The Google Groups area -- which bears a striking resemblance to the Yahoo! groups area (among others) -- is the place to find archives of discussion groups dating back to 1981.

With 20 years of discussion in the archive, it represents a neat way to see how discussions about brands have evolved in that time. AdWords listings are served into the Groups area, so one task I enjoy involves doing a brand specific search, admiring the top placement of the listing, and then reviewing discussions about said brand. Try it, I promise you will not be disappointed. 

The learning search and toolbar

“Learning,” as it were, often means dropping cookies on your machine, but in Google’s personalized search [link;] a user generated profile helps to reduce the amount of ambiguity in search results. Meanwhile, Google's browser-embedded toolbar -- which looks a lot like the AOL toolbar that helped itself to my browser when I installed AOL -- is more opt-in and requires a download.

Both the browser toolbar and personalized search are strong and useful in their own right but they might suffer from the growing anti-cookie movement. Like pop-ups, cookies are getting a bad rap, largely due to a select few who care little about ethics or moral considerations in online marketing. If the anti-spyware tools prohibiting cookies don’t get these tools, the inevitable legislation against cookies will sabotage efforts to enhance search activity.

Identity crisis vs. usability

There are tons of other things to do with Google beyond search. Some are in still in the beta lab, others ready to go mainstream or some combination of both.

History has taught us that search engines trying to reinvent themselves (with new and different uses that stray from their core mission) can have disastrous results. One possible exception is Yahoo!, which began as a search utility, diversified, later returned its focus to search, and has now once again diversified, somehow surviving in the process.

Google's reinforces its mission (”to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful”) in almost every new project it launches -- a task in which it continues to outdo itself.

In Moxee, Washington recently, a Google image search was used to identify a hit and run victim who died nearly eleven years ago. The lesson here is that users will define how they want to use tools (or search engines) beyond the scope of each creator's intentions.

Despite all the bells and whistles, one difficult truth faces search engines as we know them today. Let’s face it folks, finding what you want on a search engine is still a pain the backside.

This is why users are starting to lean away from search sites in favor of specific vertical destinations. According to recent Hitwise data for the travel and auto verticals, users increasingly tend to favor vertical sites over a search sites, and stick with that preference. 

If there were credible, valuable destination sites for verticals beyond travel and automotive category killers, search sites would be in serious trouble. The trick for Google will be in weathering its identity crisis storm by maintaining its valuable identity, all while trying to determine which, if any, destination features it wants to bring along for the ride.

iMedia columnist and search editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought-after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations.

Meet Ryan at the Kelsey’s ILM:4 Conference, November 3-5, 2004 and Ad:Tech, NY November 8-10