What Does Google Know About Us?

The better question might be, what doesn't Google know about us, according to Gartner analysts.

LAS VEGAS -- Google knows almost everything connected to the Web, but there is one major source of untapped data the company has scarcely touched to date. Can you guess that area?

If you cried "e-commerce transactions" you would be right, according to analysts at the Gartner Symposium ITexpo 2008 here April 10.

Thanks to a powerful database management system and corresponding technologies, the company is able to access just about anything that hasn't been encrypted, said Gartner analyst Richard Hunter in his presentation on what kind of information Google corrals on the world.

The one area where Google isn't particularly strong is in e-commerce transactions, where its Google Checkout platform sees only about 1 percent of what is sold on the Internet.

"This is obviously an area of great interest for them because so much of their current revenue is devised of advertising," Hunter said.

The conversation shed a new light on the rumor that Google could buy online travel power Expedia. Some financial analysts applauded this notion, while others booed the premise. The naysayers claimed Google would be broadening its business too much, while the cheerleaders claimed Google would be able to tap a new world of advertising.

Both lines of reasoning are true, but after Hunter's presentation it became clear that a major e-commerce buy is the missing link for Google's massive data warehouses, which touched 100 exabytes of data in 2007.

Clearly, Google knows the behavior patterns of its users. Do a search and the company will tailor ads based on your searches. Do some more searches, open your Gmail account and you will find about four paid links related to those searches. The company also knows a lot about the computers where its Google Apps are installed.

Google Casts a Wide Web

Google sees 67 percent of searches, knows the traffic of more than 1.5 million Web sites, as well as the physical locations of several things thanks to its Google Earth application.

For example, Gartner analyst Mark Stahlman used his mobile phone and Google Earth to pinpoint the location of our conference room in the Mandalay Bay resort here. The search vendor is also trying to learn the physical location of any cell phone user, thanks to its Google My Location application.

In another example, Hunter showed how a fellow analyst was able to find a person's name and address through Google's Picasa photo album application.

"When you put together their understanding of a physical location with their understanding of the user and their knowledge of their users' locations, you can derive a lot of meaningful information from the confluence of those things," Hunter said.

Google's information purview extends to businesses, of course. Hunter asked the audience of about 200 if their companies use Google Apps. A surprising 46 percent said they used them.

Indeed, for a company that corralled 100 exabytes of data in 2007, the better question might be: What doesn't Google know?

And while you're at it, think about what e-commerce giant Google might be inclined to target to fill out its information and online ad holes. Will it be Expedia? Amazon? eBay?