AOL Deal Could Speed Googles Undoing

Opinion: The future may bring an unsavory creature to your Web browser: Google ads with images, sold by AOL.

What a difference 10 days can make. Earlier this month, it appeared as though Microsoft and AOL were going to pair off, the Time Warner business unit shedding its old ties with Google for new ones with MSN Search. At the time, rumor had it that no large sums would change hands.

Well, a large sum—$1 billion large—is leaving Google for Time Warner. In return, Google gets 5 percent of AOL, expands the advertising sales relationship between the two services, and the right to make a rude gesture in Steve Ballmers direction.

With this deal, Google gets to save face, but it may also plant another seed of its ultimate undoing. How? Well, let me tell you a story about Starbucks and then circle back to Google and AOL. Here goes:

I remember a time back when Starbucks was about selling better coffee than you could buy in the grocery store. The beans didnt come prepackaged and Starbucks made a big deal that there were only so many great coffee beans to be found and they had them.

They dont say that so much anymore, perhaps because they now sell more coffee than there are great beans available to brew.

A lot has changed at Starbucks, a big decrease in the emphasis on coffee as the company repositioned itself as the new neighborhood hangout.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about Starbucks offering wireless Internet access alongside its coffee.

Compared to seeing a bar open on seemingly every street corner, I suppose I prefer Starbucks. But, I liked the company a whole lot more a dozen years ago more than I do today.

Starbucks changed and alienated me as a customer, though I am sure Howard Schultz has gotten over it.

What does this have to do with the Google experience? Well, it could be about to change as a result of the AOL deal.

Google initially attracted users with a sparse interface that gave search results center stage and treated paid results—advertising—essentially as a necessary evil.

More and more advertising has been creeping into Googles results pages, sometimes there seems to be more paid results than free ones.

This depends, of course, on what youre searching for, but the change is quite noticeable. And is about to become much more so.

If the news stories are to be believed, coming soon to a Web browser near you: Google ads with images, sold by AOL.

According to a story in the San Jose Mercury News: "The partnership could also herald a new experience for people who use Googles search engine, because it allows AOL to place advertising with images on Googles search results pages. Until now, Googles search engine has been devoid of any image ads."

Is this, taken alone, a big deal? Not really, but it places Google one more step away from what attracted so many of us to the service in the first place.

It also creates an opportunity, perhaps, for a company with very deep pockets, to try to become a better Google than Google. I wonder who might do that?

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