Its no exaggeration to say the Google search engine has made the product youre holding in your hands considerably better. Thats because we as journalists depend on it to speed our research. Freed from keeping voluminous files of historical information, we can pursue more stories in greater depth, secure in the knowledge that Google and other search engines will serve up relevant background information and help us check facts.
So when something that we have come to depend on changes, we, of all users, notice. For some time, Google has been exhibiting different behavior—something like the neighbor who has driven a Corolla for seven years and then one day pulls up in a Ferrari. Surely it has to do with the search sites looming IPO and its need to show copious revenue and, more important, a business plan to increase that revenue in the face of stiffening competition from Yahoo and MSN.
Googles controversial Gmail initiative, in which users would get free e-mail accounts in exchange for allowing themselves to be advertisement targets based on e-mail content, is just the latest in a lengthening string of profit-through-search initiatives at Google. We think there is nothing wrong with seeing if customers are interested in such an e-mail system, as long as there is full disclosure of how it works. The efforts of California State Sen. Liz Figueroa to ban the service are a futile attempt to protect consumers from themselves by limiting their choices in a free market.
We doubt, however, that Gmail will meet with big success. A gigabyte is not a lifetimes worth of e-mail storage. In addition, we recall one marketing experiment in which buyers got a PC and Internet access, in exchange for which they agreed to let themselves be targeted for advertisements. Not many people signed up; most people, after all, value privacy.
A local search initiative, launched by Google in recent months, looks like a more solid business proposition in our view because advertisers gain from the listings and those seeking goods to purchase typically need to do so locally.
As the rivalry among Google, Yahoo, MSN and other search providers heats up in the months and years ahead, were bound to see more schemes to wring profit from search and related technologies. Google plans to integrate an online social network into its services later this year, for example.
We see no problem with business plans that include the idea of earning hard cash. After all, we went through the dot-com-bubble economy in which dubious schemes burned through millions of investment dollars before the inevitable collapse. We recognize that, ultimately, there is no free lunch—or free search.
But there is honest search—search that discloses when and in what ways its nature is commercial. As Google advances toward economic riches, we suggest that it not lose sight of what has brought it this far: honest search with relevant results. We would also suggest that Google officials keep in mind this lesson from the dot-com boom and bust: Greed kills.
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