At a press event held for members of the old media and the new -- there were bloggers among the journalists -- Google renamed its second major product in as many weeks. Google's Personalized Homepage is now called iGoogle, beating out internal suggestions such as Fusion, Mockingbird, and Yougle.
Marissa Mayer, VP of search products and user experience, acknowledged that Google had undertaken a systematic review of product names and that like Froogle, which recently became Google Product Search, Google Personalized Homepage didn't work very well internationally.
Mayer's presence at press events is typically the indication of a Google announcement of some significance, and Monday's brunch-and-briefing was no exception. She was there not so much to promote Google's new software as to promote Google's vision of search. Search, not only for Google but for its competitors, is becoming personal.
"When I look at things 15 to 20 years out ... what will the search engine be like?" Mayer mused. "It will be a lot better and will understand more about the user."
An increasing emphasis on search personalization has been predicted for years by those who follow the search advertising business. Knowing something about the person you're pitching tends to lead to better ad results. But Mayer came to tell the assembled reporters about the value of personalization from the user perspective. Personalization makes Google's core product, search, better. That's a significant admission for a company that has put so much effort into automated, machine-driven solutions.
Google thus is turning to its users rather than technology to improve search relevance and the overall user experience. "We can't go around designing products for the average person," said Sep Kamvar, technical lead for iGoogle. "We have to be taking the person who is doing the searching into account."
That's not quite saying that search relevancy has hit a wall. But it does indicate that over the next few years better search results will probably come not from algorithmic search breakthroughs like Google's PageRank but from data provided by users.
The move toward personalization is also an admission that search is still too complicated for those not technically inclined. "Even I who have worked at Google [for years] do not take the time to craft a query correctly," said Kamvar. "We shouldn't ask that of users."
So Google wants to understand what you're likely to be interested in, whether you're looking actively for it or not. To help expand its knowledge of its users and to make their search experience better, Google recently expanded its Search History record and rebranded it Web History to encompass a greater set of user data.
At the press event, Kamvar said that Google has begun personalizing search results by location, provided the user has entered location data in his or her Google Account. And in addition Mayer's announcement about iGoogle, iGoogle product manager Jessica Ewing introduced Gadget Maker, a way for nonprogrammers to create their own gadgets. In conjunction with Gadget Maker, Google is releasing seven gadget templates, including a photo gadget, a greeting gadget, a blogging gadget, a list gadget, a countdown gadget, a YouTube gadget, and a free form gadget.
Gadgets, or widgets, are small programs that can be embedded in iGoogle pages, in Google Desktop, or on individual Web pages. They represent user-generated content and they tell Google a lot about the affinities of the individuals using them.
While Mayer said Google had no immediate plans to monetize gadgets directly by selling space on personalized pages, the company clearly sees the value of gadgets to marketers. "We actually think of gadgets as a new unique form of advertising," said Mayer. To illustrate why a company might want to put its content into a Google Gadget, Mayer explained, "You can actually advertise to your users at the moment they open their browsers."
Mayer said that Google CEO Eric Schmidt had charged the development team with making gadgets viral, which is to say easy to share. That may not prove difficult given that iGoogle (under its old name) was the fastest growing Google product in 2006 and Google clearly intends to sustain that momentum.
Mayer said that "tens of millions" of Google users have set up iGoogle pages, which isn't a lot considering Google's worldwide reach.
Google is clearly aware of the privacy implications of gathering and storing user data. Kamvar stressed that personalization features are optional and can be paused or removed, and that the data can be deleted or exported. Asked whether Google had received any subpoenas from law enforcement for Web History data, Mayer said, "I can't comment specifically on requests that we have received."
Following the presentation, Mayer said that Google strives constantly to balance the benefits of personalization with the privacy risks.