Even small changes to the world’s most-used search engine inevitably affect how hundreds of millions of people use the Web. In the past few days, Google introduced two big features which could have major implications for the future of online search and for the company’s evolving relationship to a handful of emerging rivals.
Google Real Time Search, first announced during a Monday event at California’s Computer History Museum, merges the frequent updates made by users of social sites Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace with Google’s general Web search results. This means that if you’re looking for information on events that are unfolding quickly — such as a sporting event or an earthquake — you can scan through messages posted in the last few minutes rather than news articles or Web sites that are already outdated. (And don’t worry, Google only plans to include public messages from Facebook Pages rather than the private status updates that make up the bulk of the social networking site.)
Google had to strike deals with each of these companies to make the real-time feature possible, but it’s a maneuver many believe will help the search giant compete with these very players. Before, the best way to find out how the general public feels about a speech from President Obama, for example, was to scan through Twitter — now the upstart microblogging service has one less advantage to boast.
The announcement also may affect the do-si-do between Google and News Corp., which has threatened in recent weeks to prevent its stories from showing up on Google. As Google watcher Danny Sullivan points out in a post, it’s unclear why the parent of MySpace is willing to give up data from the social network while at the same time being so protective of its journalism.
Last Friday, Google quietly rolled out a feature which may have even greater impact on Web users — though many are unlikely to notice. With something the company calls Personalized Search, Google will start showing different search results for different users, depending on which links they have clicked the most in the past. In theory this means that eventually, a car lover and a zoologist typing “jaguar” into the search field will wind up with two different sets of search results.
Search tailored to individuals will no doubt make Google more useful. But what will it do to advertisers? Businesses that have spent years and millions of dollars optimizing their Web sites for search may find themselves gradually shoved out of the top 10 listings for choosy Web surfers who prefer non-commercial pages like Wikipedia and LinkedIn. Ultimately, businesses could decide to spend less money juicing their placement in “organic results” and more on the paid search ads from which Google derives the bulk of its revenues.