Reading the Google Tea Leaves

Trying to understand Google's product roadmap

Every time Google comes out with a new product, many people talk about how great it is and highlight the product as a category killer. However, it increasingly appears to me that Google is filling up holes in their offering, in an attempt to match its competitors. Based on that assumption, I started wondering if Google had any product that was truly unique. To do so, I started a chart that mapped Google offerings against its competitors. For the purpose of this analysis, I decided that Google’s main competitors were Microsoft, Yahoo!, and AOL.

The Search Space

Google is undoubtedly the leader in search. It is what they specialized in and continues to be their most cherished asset. But does Google offer search products that fill a niche which is not covered by its competitors? Let’s take a look…

Indexes Google Microsoft Yahoo! AOL
Audio No Yes Yes Yes
Blogs Yes Unknown Yes (mixed with news) In development
Books Yes In development In development No
Catalog Yes No No No
Directory Yes No Yes Yes
Encyclopedia No Yes (Encarta) Yes Yes
Images Yes Yes Yes Provided by Google
Local Yes Yes Yes Yes
News Yes Yes Yes Yes
Podcasts Rumored No Yes Limited
Shopping Yes Yes Yes Yes
Usenet Yes No No No
Video Yes Yes Yes Yes
Web Yes Yes Yes Provided by Google

The interesting thing, when looking at this data, is that, apart from Catalog and Usenet search, Google does not offer services offered by others or currently under development. Interestingly, Google does not have any offerings in the Audio (nor a Podcast offering) and Encyclopedia space (although Wikipedia results sometimes pop-up in search results.) This seems to highlight two potential areas where Google will introduce new products: an audio search engine, which will include podcasts, and some type of partnership with Wikipedia to fill the reference space.

What is interesting here is that Google has generally been the first to market with many of the search collections listed. From this, one can deduce that Google works more as a competitive threat to its competitors, forcing them to invest more in their search product and, in the process, improving the quality and breadth of search data for every user on the Internet. This is a good thing but not revolutionary unto its own.

Search Services

The next area I decided to look into, in order to divine the whats and wheres of Google was the type of search-specific services it offered, compared to the same competitors.

Search Services Google Microsoft Yahoo! AOL
Answers Yes No No No
Clustered results No In development No Yes (default)
Desktop Search Yes Yes Yes Yes
Mobile Search Yes Yes Yes Yes
Personalized Search Yes Rumored Yes No
Search History Yes No Yes Yes (default)

This is actually interesting in that the offerings are pretty close. Of note here is a departure on the part of Microsoft, which is experimenting with clustered search. None of its competitors have show a product in that space and this may be an interesting indication of how they plan to play in that space.

Also of note is the fact that only Google offers a paid answering service (Google Answers). A question for players in that space could be whether something like the recent Mechanical Turk offering from Amazon could help a company fill that niche. This seems to be an untapped market that is only being mined by Google.

Non-search services

OK, so we can clearly see that Google has done a good job in the search space and its competitors are working hard to play catch up in that area. While they’re doing so, Google has been busy ramping up its offerings and closing some holes in terms of being an online media player. Let’s take a look at how it is fairing in the non-search space.

Other Services Google Microsoft Yahoo! AOL
Auctions No Search only Yes No
Blogs Yes Yes Yes Yes
Calendar No Yes Yes Yes
Discussion Groups Yes Yes Yes Yes
Email Yes Yes Yes Yes
IM Yes Yes Yes Yes
Internet Access Very Limited Yes Yes Yes
Maps Yes Yes (with 2 more) Yes Yes
Personal Page (My.*) Yes Yes Yes Yes (via My Netscape)

Of note in that area is the fact that Google has managed to revamp the email space with its Gmail offering, forcing Yahoo! and Microsoft to work on a revamp of products user-interface that had not really evolved much since their introductions. A couple of interesting holes in the Google offerings in terms of auctions and calendaring will probably be filled in the near future with online offerings closing the gap in those areas. Heck, even people working at some of their competitors are clamoring for such offerings.

More interesting, however, is the fact that Google is the only player in that space without a substantial access offering. Basically, they’ve been using the public internet as their accessibility world. This can provide some details as to the recent rumors of their developing a large scale WiFi network and some of their interest in purchasing dark fiber or other rumors about their interest in AOL.

Once again, it seems that Google has served well as spurring its competitors into action but the magic Google sauce does not seem to reside in the product offerings.

Developer Services

While all those offerings seem of interest to the general public, Google has been doing a good job in catering to early adopters, who generally impact general opinion. When doing a comparison on that space, it was fascinating to see that Google took the lead in most categories and that AOL did not even play in any of them.

Developer Services Google Microsoft Yahoo! AOL
Advertising Program Yes Yes Yes No
Development APIs Yes Yes Yes No
New Services Preview Yes Yes Yes No
Web Hosting No Yes Yes No

That last item is one to ponder. Google is not in the hosting business yet. But it seems that there is potential for them and, once again, could play along the lines of Google trying to harvest dark fiber. They’ve revolutionized the online email space by offering a larger amount of disk space than any competitors. It seems they could be doing the same in the hosting space by offering a combination of easy to set-up and update tools (based on the blogger set of templates) with some more powerful features like Database management (the rumored GoogleBase, which now has its own URL, even though the code still seems to be sitting behind a login area.

Conclusions

Google does innovate in some spaces but has largely innovated in order to gain entry in markets that already existed. As a rule of thumb, they’ve been very smart at breathing new innovations in those markets. However, their competitors are generally quick to notice and are catching up.

In terms of future offerings, I would not be surprised to see the following products coming from Google over the next few months:

  • An audio search engine, which will include a podcasting component (and possibly a podcast authoring component via blogger)
  • A strategic partnership with Wikipedia or some other encyclopedia
  • Some type of clustered search offering
  • A calendar product, which will probably inject new life in that space
  • An auction offering, tied with an internal payment system
  • A web hosting service that will scale from small entities to large ones and will include Gmail as part of the email offering
  • Some type of access service, probably using their WiFi solution

Whether that all happens of course is pure speculation on my part and whether it is enough to sustain their market capitalization (north of $100 billion as I write this) is something I better leave to people who know how to invest.

About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched six companies, of which two went public and three were sold. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.