Google's iGoogle Gaming
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Google is contemplating the possibility that its core service, search, could become nothing more than a widget inside an iGoogle personalized home page.
Marissa Mayer, Google's VP of search products and user experience, said as much during a conversation following her introduction of a set of new iGoogle Gaming Themes at a media event held in San Francisco on Wednesday evening.
Many possible futures cross the minds of Google's leadership, and Mayer wasn't making any definitive statements about the company's future plans. But she observed that Google is focusing both on pulled and pushed information -- the former, like search queries, delivered upon request, and the latter, like RSS feeds and iGoogle widgets, delivered automatically as per prior request.
Google's effort to become the broadcaster of pushed information began in earnest with the introduction of iGoogle in May 2007. At the time, Mayer emphasized that in the years ahead, Google expected search to become more personal. "When I look at things 15 to 20 years out ... what will the search engine be like?" she said. "It will be a lot better and will understand more about the user."
Google's framework for understanding more about its users is iGoogle. The launch of gaming themes for iGoogle, as Mayer put it, is about "allowing people to express their personalities and their interests." It's a way for Google to get to know its users. It's also, Mayer explained later on, a way to build an emotional bond with users. For many players, gaming isn't just a pastime, it's an identity.
Building emotional ties with users has become hugely important for Google as social networks have become centers of gravity online. Google doesn't want to have to beg or pay Facebook or MySpace for access to their audiences. So it has had to develop social networking features of its own.
At the same time, the very notion of Web sites as destinations is breaking down. Going to a specific Web site to access content is no longer necessary if content can be embedded, and ideally monetized, on any Web page. Every Web page becomes a potential distribution outlet. If other data, like friend lists, and privacy controls can be similarly syndicated, the walled-garden model that Facebook and MySpace temporarily revived will tumble back down. The rise and fall of AOL could easily be repeated.
IGoogle became significantly more important to Google in October, when it was reworked to include a canvas view, online real estate made available for developers to monetize widgets using ads. It became a platform. Looking ahead, it will offer whatever content its users choose to embed. The tricky part will be making iGoogle apps as profitable as search page advertising, but that's not an insoluble problem.
Interestingly, Google isn't getting paid for, or paying for, its iGoogle Gaming Themes, which could be described as persistent display ads on people's home pages. Google's search home page remains mostly sacrosanct, with only occasional ad links for major Google products. With iGoogle, marketing becomes murkier. The gaming companies that have partnered with Google, providing game artwork in the process, are doing it, according to a Google spokesperson, to connect with their communities through a new medium. Do images of Electronic Arts' "Spore" count as advertising when users ask for them?
If iGoogle continues to grow -- iGoogle had 8.9 million U.S. unique visitors in February, up 17% from a year ago, according to ComScore -- search could become just another service crammed into a widget. That wouldn't diminish its importance -- as long as we have information overload, search will be the universal solvent -- but it does suggest that Google's business will increasingly be describable in terms befitting a Burger King marketing campaign. Instead of "search, ads, and apps," Google might offer "information, served your way, with a side order of ads."
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