Q: Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit?
A: Anywhere it wants.
It's an old joke, but it neatly sums up my feelings about Google, a company whose current focus seems to be on gaining control (and a percentage) of every single dollar spent on advertising in every medium, and some days seems well on its way to getting there. That's why news of a not-yet-launched offering called Google Base is potentially so scary.
Google is apparently playing around with the idea of offering to anyone a free online database service. You will (we think) be able to customize fields to some extent. You will (we think) be able to manually enter or import data into it. The service will (we think) be offered for free. Here's where it gets interesting ... and scary. Users can enter whatever they want in a structured, consistent form. Google then will index this content and include it in its main search engine and who knows where else. This gives users the ability to expose (and sell) all sorts of things through Google without even having Web sites of their own. The scary part of this is that a manufacturer, for example, would have the ability to upload all its product data and have that data fully indexed and discoverable through Google. With convenient, powerful and free online exposure like this, who needs to advertise?
That's exactly what is concerning so many publishers. Online buying guides suddenly look a lot less compelling by comparison. The really galling part is that, while putting pressure on buying guides publishers, Google would be able to monetize this free service by selling advertising around it. What Google Base represents is the ability for advertisers to bypass the paid intermediary (publishers) in favor of a free intermediary (Google). It's not hard to guess which will resonate more with advertisers And it's not just data publishers who are concerned. Newspapers think it could cripple their classified advertising businesses. The Wall Street Journal suggests that Google Base could put serious pressure on eBay. You can even argue that this puts Google in the content creation business. Should Google Base cause Google to become enamored with structured content, there's no telling what might come next. Since Google Base effectively would allow anyone to "pour" in seemingly unlimited amounts of content which would all be immediately indexed, it's not at all clear what uses (both good and bad) could be found for this capability, and its unintended uses may prove as destabilizing as its intended uses.
And, since Google Base may never even be launched, this is all speculation. A lot of things would have to go right in order for it to truly threaten any existing online publisher, though even an unsuccessful venture can really muck up a marketplace in the process of failing. It also suggests that Google remains tone deaf about information publishers, partnering when it suits, competing when it suits, and often trying to do them both simultaneously.
It's an 800-pound gorilla thing, so we wouldn't understand.