March 3, 2003 4:00 AM PST

'Reassurance' a key word as Google grows

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Google is known and loved for its impressive Web search tool, but now the company is beginning to face some probing questions about its plans to branch into new areas.

In its latest efforts, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company last week acquired Web log--or "blog"--pioneer Pyra Labs and shortly afterward announced plans to expand from selling search-related advertising links on its own site to selling them on partner sites as well.

The announcements stake out new territory for Google, piquing curiosity about what appears to be a new direction for the company, and raising some concerns as well.

"They've always said, 'We'll be only focused on search.' How does (the Pyra purchase) have anything to do with search? It doesn't," said Danny Sullivan, publisher of industry newsletter SearchEngineWatch.com.

Google constantly tests and tinkers with new products and services, fueling endless speculation about its plans. One favorite scenario suggests the company will step up its offerings to compete directly with Web portals such as Yahoo, which aggregate news clips and services such as Web-based e-mail and online dating on top of a core search tool.

On one level, the Pyra buy brings Google a step closer to the portal model, giving it a Web publishing tool akin to Yahoo's Geocities, which hosts and helps subscribers create personal Web sites.

Pyra's Blogger.com helps individuals set up personal and easily updated Web pages, known as blogs. Blogs have popped up all over the Internet, and Pyra's tools are some of the most popular; the company said in January that it had 1 million registered users.

In addition to giving Google a Web publishing tool, the purchase could help expand the flexibility and reach of Google's already impressive data gathering and analysis technology. For example, Google might find a way to use links posted by Blogger.com users to get faster intelligence on news circulating on the Web. That could bolster its recently launched news service, which crawls thousands of news sites looking for the most important stories, using proprietary formulas to determine a story's relevance. As is the case with its search engine, this selection process takes place without the intervention of human editors.

While many in the blogging world applauded news of the Pyra acquisition, a few raised concerns about the impact of the deal.

Most blogs include many links to other Web sites and blogs. By acquiring the software that allows users to create blogs, Google will be buying loads of back-end data. Right now Google can see, through its search engine, the first step of a trail that a user makes online. But by following the links included in blogs, Google will be able to keep following along that trail: how site A leads to site B and on to sites C, D and E.

Also, for the first time, Google will host content that it will rank, raising a potential conflict of interest.

"There's a danger when the service and the infrastructure are owned


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by the same body. The rewards of using one to profit from the other are very seductive, but it's ultimately bad for the ecosystem," Matt Webb, author of the Interconnected blog, wrote in an e-mail interview.

David Weinberger, author of "Small Pieces Loosely Joined" and coauthor of "The Cluetrain Manifesto," two books about the blogging trend and theories of collective intelligence, noted the trap that Google could fall into with the buyout.

"There's no reason to think Google would," Weinberger said, "but there's a temptation with this acquisition, that any normal business would take seriously, which is to use their position to give preference" to Blogger-based sites.

Googling you
Google's flair for serving up fast, relevant results to search queries has thrust it into the spotlight with Web surfers, Internet partners and investors awaiting its initial public offering. In an illustration of Google's power, the company was recently named brand of the year in consulting firm Interbrand's annual survey, beating out household names like Apple Computer and Coke--all without having ever advertised its service.

Increasingly, however, some people see a dark side to its fame.

Stephen Keating, managing director of the Privacy Foundation, a nonprofit research organization, says that aside from concerns specific to the company, Google provides a sobering example of the changing nature of how we access information. With court documents newly available online, for example, searchable databases like Google can reveal in-depth information on people.

"It's such a powerful search tool, it's hard to state what privacy on the Internet means anymore," said Keating. "It's like pulling a thread on a sweater: You can unravel all this information."

Others worry the company could pose a more calculated danger.

Google's worldwide popularity has already led many who oversee Web sites to worry, given that they're beholden to Google's editorial search results for much of their Internet traffic. This relationship has led to one pending lawsuit over Google's search algorithms.

In addition, questions have been raised about Google's data-collection practices, which some critics say may pose a privacy threat.

With Google's latest move to sell links on nonsearch related Web pages of Blogger and of partner sites, the company is looking more like an advertising network such as 24/7 Media and one-time ad seller DoubleClick. These companies have sought to use tracking technology such as cookies to monitor Web surfers and send them ads relevant to their interests. But their practices are carefully watched.

DoubleClick, once the largest ad network of the dot-com heyday, came under heated scrutiny because of its ability to track Web surfers wherever they went online, in order to serve them targeted ads. The company faced a maelstrom of privacy complaints that were kicked off after it bought offline direct marketer Abacus and announced that it would merge personal customer data with what, till then, had been data on the surfing habits of anonymous individuals. Following outcry from federal regulators and privacy advocates, the company quashed its plans. After the Internet bust, it sold off its ad network because of declining ad sales.

Worst offender?
Google's data-collection capabilities have similarly raised red flags with some, including a Web site that nominated Google for an annual contest that seeks to pinpoint the Web's worst privacy offender.

The nomination for the Big Brother prize came from Google-watch.org, which claims Google collects data on visitors unchecked.

The criticism focused largely on data Google collects through a commonly used Web-tracking technology known as the "cookie." The Google cookie, which plants a unique ID on a visitor's hard drive that can be linked with the user's search queries, is set to continue functioning until the year 2038--a distant expiration date that, according to Google-watch.org, set the standard for such "immortal" cookies.

Google also notes the user's browser type and Internet protocol address. That information could theoretically be used to track information about Web usage on a particular computer, although Google's privacy policy states that the company "aggregates" the data, or gathers it into anonymous groupings.

"It's Google's size that matters," said Google-watch.org founder Daniel Brandt, who said he created his site to help monitor the search giant. "The easiest way for the federal government to get a foot in the door on terrorism would be to arrange a back-door tracking system with Google to locate the searcher and see what search terms are being used. They would have a finger on the pulse on the global mind share done with an antiterrorist justification in mind."

Google declined to answer specific questions, sent to the company in an e-mail, about its data-collection practices. In its reply, Google offered general assurances that its privacy practices do not violate the trust of its users.

"As part of Google's ongoing effort to increase the quality of our search results, we do analyze information about how users interact with our site," wrote David Drummond, Google's vice president of corporate development. "Already, the use of this information has resulted in significant improvements to the overall quality of Google search results and has helped millions of people find the information they need. Google does not share nonaggregate user information with third parties and we treat the integrity and security of user information seriously."

Drummond added that people can set their browser preferences to disable Google's cookies without affecting its search tool.

Regarding the Pyra purchase, Drummond said Google remains committed "to delivering unbiased and objective search results, and to maintaining the highest level of integrity and respect for both Google and Blogger users."

Although Google has done nothing to seriously undermine its reputation for integrity so far, it's almost certain the company will face further scrutiny as its influence continues to rise.

"Small Pieces Loosely Joined" author Weinberger said that Google's trusted position within the Internet community may have, paradoxically, prompted many of the recent concerns about the company.

"The Internet is an agreement, literally--it's a protocol. And with that has come a bunch of social agreements as well: how we want to treat each other," Weinberger said. "Google, as far as we can see, has honored those agreements well past the point that any other business would. But now it finds itself in the position that its own success has bred distrust because it's large and we depend on it."

 

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