With its new personalised home pages and its email service, the Internet firm is clearly moving away from search, but it's anyone's guess where it's going
In plotting its future, is Google following its rivals too closely?
The last several months have been marked by the addition of several new features as the search-engine leader attempts to realise its widening ambitions. The latest, introduced last Thursday, is a feature that lets people set up personalised home pages a direct answer to Yahoo's My Yahoo portal. But in doing so, Google's online face to the world increasingly resembles those of its Web portal rivals.
Google executives downplay rivals' influence on its direction, but industry observers agree that the company's identity is morphing. In the battle for the online ad dollar, the distinctions between Google and its Web portal competitors are fading.
"No matter what [Google] says, it is their foray into becoming a Web portal," said Gartner analyst Allen Weiner. "They're taking dead aim at Yahoo."
"Yahoo is the biggest of the Web portals, with nearly 115 million unique visitors to the site in April, according to ComScore Media Metrix. It's followed by Microsoft's MSN and America Online. Google comes in fourth with 78 million unique visitors last month, but leads in search queries and ad click-throughs.
Yahoo responded to Google's move on Thursday with a reminder of its stature in the portal space.
"My Yahoo is the number one personalised Web page in the world," a Yahoo representative said in a statement. "We launched My Yahoo nine years ago and last year redefined personalisation again by providing access to millions of content sources from across the Web."
Google has some catching up to do in the "personalisation" front, analysts said. The company's home page tool, which is in beta release, lacks many of the richer features of My Yahoo and other portals, analysts said. For instance, it doesn't offer as many news feeds or the same level of detail on the stock market as rivals do.
Google executives dismiss the comparisons. In fact, Google vice-president Marissa Mayer, who worked closely with the team that developed the home page, said she hasn't visited My Yahoo in years. She also denies that Google is building a portal.
"We don't want this to be a walled garden just a good way to start your entry to the Web," she said.
Creating a paradise for advertisers is certainly part of the equation too, analysts said.
Google isn't advertising on its home pages yet, but those pages are likely to become prime online advertising space. The beauty, of course, is that advertisers may be able to target their pitches based on the type of content and preferences people select.
"If they are successful, they will eat into Yahoo's business to some degree," Jupiter Research analyst David Schatsky said.
Analysts conjectured that Google might populate home pages with banner ads, as rivals have done. Mayer didn't rule it out, but said the quality of ads in terms of targeting the right audience is more important than ad type. Figuring out how to do that can take months, she said.
"There's a lot of research to be done here," she said. "But I would be inclined toward text ads."
The issue goes to the heart of Google's identity. Google's enormous popularity has a lot to do with the uncluttered simplicity of its home page an oasis to many in a world of ever-busier, flashier Web designs. Google's plainness also speaks to the company's early reputation for putting the concerns of users ahead of, or at least on equal footing with, those of advertisers.
That's why some industry observers applaud the company's decision to leave its "classic" home page untouched while introducing the personalisation option.
"If you want more from the service, you can get it but it's not being shoved in your face, at least for now," Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch, wrote in his blog.
But as Google pursues a road closer to Yahoo and MSN, will its do-no-evil mantra ring true?
In the end, it may not matter. After all, the privacy dustup over the way Google places target advertising on Gmail by scanning the text of private messages has not set the company back much.
"The best thing that comes out of all of this is that it is going to accelerate innovation, not only from Yahoo," Gartners Weiner said. "It is going to be a real nudge to Microsoft too, and you can not leave AOL out of the pack. The consumer is going to benefit."
What Google does next is anyones guess, but analysts have their theories. Weiner thinks Google will introduce an instant-messaging product within six months, either by acquisition or by building one in-house. It is a major feature that Yahoo, MSN and AOL all offer. "Until they have an IM strategy, they are not fully engaged," Weiner said.
Analysts also expect Google to open Gmail up for public consumption soon. Google has kept the free email service in beta-mode, limiting the number of accounts to those who are invited to join. Offering a home page without email is "kind of odd", Search Engine Watchs Sullivan said.
Further out on the horizon, analysts see the Google home page as a platform for introducing more kinds of media, such as audio and video content. TV listings are another possibility, Sullivan said.
"The thing to watch is, Google is good at doing stuff that is different features no one was expecting," he added. "They will not completely match everything Yahoo offers. They always have to do something no one else is doing."