I’ve been playing with Google’s new “Google Base” service this week and interviewing Internet watchers and players about it. In a nutshell, it strikes me as a fascinating but flawed attempt to get users to help Google by providing the company with information, rather than having the company’s search engine spiders trawl for it.
Google Base breaks the pattern of other recent product releases from the company. It’s not a straightforward information service, like Google Maps or Gmail; rather, it’s a way for the company to obtain whatever information users want to provide. Furthermore, unlike those other Google products, which were clearly better than existing offerings, Google Base seems to be a solution in need of a problem, at least from the user’s point of view. I think it’s unlikely that people will respond to it the way they have to other offerings from Google.
The purpose of Google Base, launched on November 16, is to allow registered Google users to upload any kind of information they like to the company’s servers, where it will be available for other registered users to search. Baby photos, recipes, used car ads, doctoral theses – whatever you want others to find, you can upload into Google Base.
In addition, Google Base allows users to add “attributes” to whatever they upload – a feature that taps into the current “tagging” craze. Adding tags (or attributes, as Google calls them) lets users determine how information should be categorized, instead of relying on complex search algorithms or keyword-based advertising to determine a page’s relevance.
In essence, Google Base is relying on its users to be gatekeepers of how their data will be found. That’s a turnaround from the company’s insistence on using automated algorithms to do almost everything; in fact, it harkens back to Yahoo’s early business model, which depended partly on user submissions of new URLs and a team of editors assigning a classification for each site. “With tagging, Google Base [users have] the ability to not only put in some information and expose it, but also to organize it very fluidly,” says David Weinberger, author of Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of The Web. “It’s the kind of infrastructure people can use.”
To pre-populate Google Base, the company enlisted select companies and organizations to upload information. One of those is the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington, DC. Amy Cassara, an associate at the institute, says the organization has spent the last two years converting various data formats into HTML to raise the chances that its network would appear in Google search results. Now they’ve uploaded many of those pages directly into Google Base, using a “bulk uploader” option that Google offers to those who want to send lots of similar data.