Google, not being content merely indexing all the free content in the world, has just announced the introduction of Google Print, a new service designed to index the full text of books. Since books are rarely plopped onto the Web in full form free for the taking, Google is now actively striking deals with book publishers for access to the contents of their books. Most significant of all: Google won't give away the full contents of the books it indexes. Rather, it will show only a few pages of the book to show the user's search term in context. If the user wants more, Google will provide links to online retailers where users can buy the book. Yes, Google is now supporting and facilitating the sale of content! This is huge.
Consider the possibilities: subscription-based database and directory publishers can use this new service to merchandise their products and develop direct online sales. This approach, adapted properly to the special issues of database publishers, could prove significantly more powerful as a sales tool than buying search terms. Since Google wants to aggressively grow this new area, it's also likely to remain free for some time.
Initially, Google says it wants to provide online purchasing links to online book retailers such as Amazon. My guess is that this is a temporary gambit because Google doesn't want to look like it's trying to compete with Amazon. While I don't see Google getting into online bookselling, what seems inevitable to me is that Google will ultimately offer links direct to publishers, for a fee, so that participating publishers can sell directly. That's critical for serials publishers, who need to capture the customer's name and address to generate renewal sales. The only way to get this information is to cut the book retailer out of the picture, and Google's platform could make this happen. By the way, Google Print could be a boon to the e-book business, because if you've found a book through a Web search, my guess is you want to get your hands on it sooner rather than later, and e-books provide that through instant downloads.
I've always liked the integration of paid content with free content via search. I first saw it with the old Northern Light service many years ago, and it seems to be coming back into fashion again. You can argue about the best ways to co-mingle free and paid content, but everybody seems to agree that overall it's a good idea.
To my mind, the best part about co-mingling free and paid content is that it offers a constant if subtle reminder to search engine users that not all content is free. The most damaging aspect of the big search engines is that they have inadvertently created a perception that they offer most if not all of the information in the world for free. Those of us who sell content have all been hurt by this. That the biggest search engine of them all will soon start including and merchandising paid content is absolutely a good thing. To the extent we can use it to better sell our own products it's an even better thing.