Google's latest surprise is that it's now offering enterprise-class Web analytics for free. Why would they do such a thing? They've decided that licensing fees are worth less money than the opportunity to find out what pages people are visiting, how long they're staying there, where they're coming from, and where they're going to next. Google Analytics is another microscope Google can use to peer into what people are paying attention to.
It's just an extension of the real business that Google is in, which isn't search, or e-mail, or maps, or even advertising. Rather, Google is in the attention business.Most of us are in the attention business in one way or another. Most jobs consist of large amounts of getting other people to do what you want them to do. But before you can convince someone else to do things your way, you have to get their attention. You need to get some time on the boss's calendar, or to lure the potential customer into the store. Sometimes you need to hire a lawyer or call the cops just to get the other guy's attention.
The advertising business is the business of buying and selling attention in bulk quantities. Media outlets such as newspapers, TV, radio shows and online periodicals get you to pay attention by giving you information you want. Then the media outlets turn around to the advertisers and say, "We have all these people paying attention to us. Give us some money and we'll slip your message in front of them."
Whereas the rest of us are trying to get other people to pay attention to us, Google seeks to find out what people are already paying attention to and get in front of them for a moment. That's how AdWords works; Google displays its advertising based on keywords in searches. Search Google for the word "golf," and you'll see ads for golf equipment, services, and resorts.
For Google, being in the attention business means it's of utmost importance for Google to find out what people are paying attention to. To do that, Google has made a history of giving away services that other companies charge an arm and a leg for. Even more amazingly, the service that Google gives away is usually better than the services that other people are charging for. GMail is a great mail client with 2 gigabytes of free storage. Likewise, Google Maps, Google Desktop search, and the Picasa desktop photo-organizer are first rate implementations of what they do.
In exchange for that free service and software, Google wants to look over your shoulder and take notes on what you're paying attention to and what you're ignoring.
Right now, Google uses the attention information for one purpose: Ads. It seems to me that attention is a valuable commodity that can be sold in many other ways other than advertising--but I guess I'm too stuck in 20th Century thinking to come up with any ideas. How else might Google make money, other than by selling ads? What other ways are there for an Internet business to make money by selling its users' attention?