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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Google, The Portal, in New Land Grab

The portal wars are back! This time around, perennial winner Google isn't battling it out with Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, and, er, Excite and Snap.

Rather, it's left with the rather easier task of sucking the oxygen out of the rooms vertical players like Zillow try to breathe in, and then battling any potential public image drawbacks to its growing status as a vertical-devouring meanie.

In the wake of Google's entry into the aggregation of property listings, Hitwise's Heather Hopkins notes the importance of the vertical: last week, 2% of Google traffic was sent off to listings in the real estate industry.

This brings up the potential contradictions and disingenuousness of the search engines' efforts to tout the merits of what's being called Universal or Blended search. The "death of the ten blue links" is a sexy way of dismissing clunky old search results pages and opening the door to a new age of more context-sensitive search results, to be sure. But when directly asked if the strategy isn't a way to keep more users on their own properties rather than sending them to those "downstream" sites Hopkins et al. spend their careers following, the search engines generally indicate something to the effect that they would never contemplate such a thing, or would "weigh these decisions in light of what's best for the user." Perhaps. But as predicted, Google's moves into blended search have done little to increase traffic (for example) for any video streaming site but YouTube. You can often extend that principle to other elements of these blends.

As Hopkins notes astutely: "The real question for Real Estate websites is whether (and when) property listings will be included in the search engine results page on Google.com." The search engines have plenty of alibis handy for their land grab behaviors -- for example, they've built out a variety of metasearch and aggregation models (such as Google Video and Yahoo Video) that offer due credit to a variety of third party providers. But the real power comes from that first page of SERP's -- the ones we keep such close watch on with heat maps and Google Analytics referral statistics (when they do refer traffic downstream, that is). Google isn't sending you from Google.com to some other provider of news headlines; it's sending you to Google News.

The powerful utility of the new tools tends to soften the fact that the major search engines are essentially moving back to a walled garden concept reminiscent of the old AOL, minus the wall and the subscription fee.

In the meantime, data providers are left with difficult choices: do I give all of this data/power to large centralized players with little hope of a formal agreement, let alone any explicit conversation or setting of positive expectations about outcomes? (In the tradition of Google Base and the public relations strategy around that: "Here it is. It's really important. Go nuts.") It's this ambiguity that has led more observers to refer to Google as little more than another "scraper site".

Ironically, such accusations are sometimes levelled by the purveyors of similar quasi-scraper schemes. It takes one to know one. In real estate as in so many verticals, any land grab is going to be reminiscent of a scene from Goodfellas. Arguably, though, sites like Zillow have made great headway in connecting personably and directly with homeowners; encouraging them to voluntarily join in an information exchange and convincing them persuasively of that benefit. Google has done nothing of the sort.

At the end of the day, I think (hope?) the search engines recognize the dangers inherent in leaving originating data sources and content providers devoid of traffic and income, so it is a matter of how much traffic they continue to send along to third party vertical players, rather than being an all-or-nothing scenario. Taken too far, companies that purport to be dialed into their core competency in "search" -- the implied mission being to send traffic downstream to originating content providers who've made heavy investments in content and community -- would morph back into walled-garden, AOL-thinking portals.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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