Google Crosses the Rubicon


It's no secret that Google and its brethren have been feverishly working for several years now to crack the local business advertising market, historically the province of yellow pages publishers. However, despite endless resources and top programming talent, Google has apparently concluded that you can't organize information that doesn't exist. There's just not enough information available online on most of these small, locally-focused businesses.

Of course if you've got boundless self-confidence (and billions in the bank), no problem seems insurmountable. That's the genesis of Google's new "Local Business Referral Program." While there's a sales element to this program, the bottom line is that Google is beginning to compile a proprietary national database of local businesses.

Google's vision is to have a fleet of independent contractors running around the country, collecting information on local businesses and snapping pictures of them. Bounty: $10 per listing if the company verifies the collected data.

Job requirement are minimal: love of the Internet, access to a digital camera, and ability to fill out a W-9 that won't get kicked back by the feds. Forgive me for chuckling at the visual picture of the workforce this program is likely to attract.

There's some indication that Google expects this supremely qualified force to "talk up" the benefits of advertising with Google, but this seems secondary to what is clearly a major data compilation exercise.

What particularly intrigues me is that Google does not appear to be assigning companies to its contractors to interview. If they should all decide to visit only pizza parlors and drug stores, that's apparently okay to Google. Even more surprising is that Google won't pay a contractor if some other contractor got to the company first. How many times will you have your work rejected before you give up in disgust? Similarly, after being hit up by multiple Google contractors for the same information, how many local businesses will conclude Google is not cutting edge, but out of control?

Of course, those of us in the business know that gathering data is nothing compared to maintaining it. I presume that Google expects all these businesses to self-maintain their data using a handy web page. If only the information business was that easy.

Though Google's foray into the data business -- at least in its early stage -- seems a bit amateurish, it has now crossed the Rubicon. It has moved from organizing data to building proprietary databases, and seems willing to do so on a massive scale. While most of us have chosen to view Google as a "frenemy" to date, this is a profound move, perhaps more profound than even Google realizes.

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