Sometime last week, search giant Google Inc. did something that seems rather innocuous to Google Base, its free feature for searching classified ads, event notices and other content contributed by Googles registered users.
But like just about anything Google does, simple upgrades seem to have profound impacts and contain big hints of Googles next big thing.
The Mountain View, Calif., Internet giant recently unveiled a Google Base self-reporting feature for bad sites, one that mimics those used by Craigslist and other pioneering online searchable references that are based entirely on contributions from the public at-large.
It also added a new step in the Google Base process. When clicking on a Google Base search result, users now travel to a Web site under Googles control, which has a version of the listing Google generated. Users have the option of clicking on a link to visit the listings originating site.
Innocent sounding? No doubt.
But taken in another context, with a few all but unnoticed changes, Googles managed to assume a much more aggressive role in whats posted on Google Base. And that may help it further legitimize the feature just as the integrity is being questioned of other sites composed largely of contributions from the general public.
In fact, the changes now mean Google can and may already be reviewing listings before they are made part of the search results. It could be a means of fighting the same problems of accountability and credibility that have been encountered recently by Craigslist and online encyclopedia Wikipedia, both pioneers in offering up content created for the public at-large to search through.
The recent Google changes hearken to the “user policing” en vogue at user-created references, writes Classified Intelligence analyst John Zappe.
Google Base product manager Bindu Reddy writes on the official Google Base blog, that Google is experimenting on different ways of navigating through Google Base. “In the future we plan to test a number of other navigation changes,” he writes.
Any other possible reasons for the changes couldnt immediately be learned, nor could how Google goes about choosing material from the listing for this new page, which would help answer many of the questions about its intent.
Speculation of its motives amounts to “opinion,” a Google spokesman wrote in an e-mail. He declined further comment.
To a large degree, Googles a newcomer to community-based resource building, but suffering from a backlash thats been long in the making.
At first, people were willing to forgive the rough edges of such community-built information sources, brushing off the high school atmosphere, nonsensical entries or glaring errors as a charming part of an exciting new service.
As community-built resources become more prominent, so does the questioning of the integrity of information thats available. The pressure has increased dramatically because of the breakthrough popularity of Wikipedia, plus the introduction of similar efforts by Yahoo Inc., the Internets leading destination; Google; and Microsoft Corp.
The Internet portals, as they are known, are motivated to do so in search of the almighty ad dollar. An estimated $12 billion is being spent on online advertising this year, which is a double-digit increase from last year. In 2006, analysts think online ad spending will reach $16 billion. To help grab more of this pool of cash, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo each plan to put advertising on their community-built references.
As awareness and scrutiny are heightened, a number of incidents are surfacing that call into question these sites integrity. For instance, online encyclopedia Wikipedia, written and edited by users, was stung by high-profile criticism over what turned out to be a hoax entry.
In just one example of how criminals have apparently discovered these kinds of sites, Craigslist, the pioneering feature Google Base closely resembles, was allegedly used to run a prostitution ring earlier this year.
While the character of its listings has not been called into questions, Googles been nonetheless pressured to smarten up Google Base.
Google faced an embarrassing situation in November when some users were flooded with results from adult entertainment and porn sites, something they specifically had asked not to receive.
Editors Note: This story was updated to include comments from a Google representative.