RealTime IT News

Google Base: Froogle Local +

In November, Froogle quietly went local.

At that time, searchers using Google's product search and comparison tool, launched in December 2002, were encouraged to put in a location as well as a keyword by text under the query bar saying, "E.g. 'digital camera' or 'car near San Francisco.'"

Results for such searches include the addresses, telephone numbers and mapped locations of physical stores where an item can be purchased.

That information likely comes from Google Base, the search goliath's giant database in the sky. While the ability to feed in product information made sense, many industry watchers were perplexed by the invitation to upload recipes, poetry, photos -- just about everything. What's all that good for? It could be that Google itself doesn't know.

Product search, of course, is a no-brainer.

"People are now using the Internet to research, but they still want to see it and buy it locally," said Kendall Fargo, CEO of StepUp Commerce. "You just want to find who has this product and go buy it on your way home from work."

Fargo founded StepUp Commerce in January 2004 to help retailers connect with customers over the Internet. The company built software that plugs into commonly used accounting applications including QuickBooks to automatically feed retailers' product information into its database, charging them a monthly subscription fee.

The company has around 21 million products in its database, and, while it offers a public product-finding service at www.stepup.com, its business model is to profit from merchants' subscription fees while distributing their local product information to other shopping destinations.

In December 2003, Google came calling.

"Google was originally planning to go to retailers themselves, but they realized retailers didn't have the bandwidth to give them inventory feeds," Fargo said. Besides, retailers want their products to be found on all the search engines, without having to provide separate technology feeds.

StepUp became a strategic partner, and, when Google Base went live in October, it included StepUp's localized product feeds, as well as ArtNet, an online resource for pricing and acquiring art; CareerBuilder, a job listings site; Collegeboard.org, a membership site for the college-bound; and the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.

Phil Lan, CEO of Brilliant Shopper, a shopping destination site, wasn't worried about competition from the world's biggest search engine. Noting that Google may struggle to control what's posted to Google Base, he said, "To make it more relevant for individual searchers, Google will have to verticalize it, providing content, local product and services and then new products. I'd argue that, when that happens, how will that be different from Froogle?"

Lan said Brilliant Shopper has more tools and features than Froogle, including gift ideas, product reviews and coupons. "We provide much more functionality," he said.

Some retailers were enthusiastic about the possibilities of Google Base.

ChannelAdvisor, provider of e-commerce management software to help merchants sell through sites like eBay , quickly connected its customers to Google Base.

"I'd call it a lottery ticket right now," said ChannelAdvisor CEO. "It's something you can do for free, and it could help you sell some product. And if it does, the return on investment will be very high, because you didn't have to pay for it."

Christopher Flann, owner of Chrosmack Ventures, a company that buys and sells computer hardware, sells everything from $5 SCSI adapters to $2000 servers. He's used ChannelAdvisor to load his entire inventory into Google Base.

"I think of Google Base as a way of Google helping itself to find products," he said. Flann noticed that his products on Froogle show up differently from his products loaded into Google Base. "My way of thinking about Google Base is that it's a transition to something bigger than it is right now."

"I'd call it a lottery ticket right now," said ChannelAdvisor CEO Scott Wingo. "It's something you can do for free, and it could help you sell some product. And if it does, the return on investment will be very high, because you didn't have to pay for it."

Wingo was told that, based on relevance, items placed into Google Base would be distributed to other sites. "We're anticipating that, once enough items in there, Google will build a model that includes distribution and some for-money mechanism that promotes the item and offers the ability to pay for promotion, like you do on AdWords."

Research firm Classified Intelligence uncovered Google patent applications for something called Google Automat. It included screen shots for Google Purchases and Google Classifieds. Analyst John Zappe said the services would likely make use of Google Base.

That takes care of products. So, what's up with the poetry? StepUp's Fargo believes that Google Base follows the company's 80/20 rule. Google famously encourages its engineers to devote 20 percent of their work time to projects that they think are cool, even if they don't seem to connect with the company's strategy.

"That's what they did with Google Base," he said. "That 80 percent will be focused on feeds they want to include into Google, and they'll leave 20 percent open to the bizarre and crazy, because something amazing may come out of that."