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Base-ic Instinct

Google Base encourages users to make their information more findable by uploading it directly to Google. But so what?

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.

“Is it worth it to reupload the information? I’m not sure. The jury’s still out on that,” Cassara says. Nonetheless, she’s pleased with the results thus far – a 70 percent traffic spike to their site on the first day of Google Base’s launch – and she’s happy to partner with Google. But Cassara also hopes it will become easier for interested parties to find her organization’s offerings on Google Base. “It’s pretty hard to find our information, even though there’s only 25 partners right now,” she says. Cassara also hopes the spike in viewership is sustainable and not just a result of the first-day media attention.

So what is Google’s intention anyway? Certainly, the site’s front page remains a marvel of Zen-like austerity; yet behind the scenes the company’s employees are constructing a complex network of features and functions aimed at bringing more user attention – and ad revenue.

And so far it’s worked marvelously – witness Google’s stock price soaring on November 17 to over $400 per share. But more than any recent product launch by the Leviathan of the Web, Google Base faces an uphill battle. In part, that’s because so much of what it strives to do is already available elsewhere. Sites such as Flickr, YouTube, eBay, Craigslist, MySpace, and Ourmedia all allow users to upload various items, and some allow them to add tags.

Of course it’s too early to judge a product that’s less than a week old. Like other early beta products from Google, though, Google Base is still a bit rough around the edges. For instance, when I attempted to create a personal profile (one of the options for data type), my application was rejected because it claimed (erroneously) that I’d misspelled my name.

At this point, the rumors circulating in many media outlets that Google Base will mark the death of eBay or Craigslist seem wildly premature and off the mark. Certain aspects of the Google service appear aimed at the classified ad market – for example, pages will automatically disappear after 31 days unless otherwise specified. But sellers want a huge marketplace of buyers, and Google Base doesn’t have that yet.

“We…don’t view Google Base as being directed at us,” says Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist. “One of the nice side-benefits of the public-service philosophy we follow is not having to worry about competition.”

The real test for Google Base will come when the information uploaded into it is available through Google’s main search page. Company spokesperson Nathan Tyler said that, while Google hasn’t yet announced plans to do that, it will happen. Yet it won’t be a simple job: Tyler says Google Base uses an entirely different ranking method from Google’s main search page.

Certainly, a new offering from Google – with its enormous war chest and fleet of nimble engineers – is big news. But until Google Base becomes easier to use, and the incentives for doing so become clearer, it’s little more than a curio among the company’s arsenal of tools.

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