Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) just fundamentally changed the way we see its search ratings. There are two motives behind this alteration -- one that benefits users, and one that helps the company and its shareholders.
If you log in to your Google account today, you'll see a few new squiggles next to each of your search results. Clicking on them can reorder the results list, add or read comments about a particular link, and generally mess around with the system. The company calls this SearchWiki. And it's yet another big deal.
The user case
When Google lets you in under the hood of the search engine, you get more control over what you see online, and how you see it. Judicious use of the new features can essentially make Google into a centralized and very flexible bookmarks manager, one that happens to add a few ideas of its own about what you're really looking for. The comments system adds a social element to searches, and Google certainly feels very different with these add-ons.
A few users will hate it (any change to a familiar system is bound to meet resistance), some don't care, and some will love it. Maybe they'll even live by hand-ranked search results from now on. That's the user benefit.
The business case
Call me Captain Obvious, but Google is clearly hoping that SearchWiki will catch on and attract a loyal following for years to come. This move is not so much about increasing market share or growing the market itself, though -- it's all about those precious Google accounts.
When you sign up for a Big G account and start using it on a regular basis, you'll see a few changes in your browsing experience, such as the SearchWiki feature and personalized search results. The big tentpoles of the logged-in Google experience, like Gmail, the calendar, and the Picasa photo organizer, are never far away, and they all integrate with your personal information to keep the experience neat and tidy.
The key here is that every one of these applications and features requires a login, including the new re-ranking option. This is Google's ticket to future profits.
Let Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) fight over scraps from Google's search table. That's where online revenue comes from today, and for the next few years. But Google's master plan is still in virtual grade school, barely out of Kindergarten. When the company truly grows up, maybe 10 years from now, purely online sales will play but a small part in Big G's business plan.
Armed with a big sack full of information about logged-in users and their browsing habits, Google is positioning itself to become the MOAMP (mother of all marketing platforms). Many digital set-top boxes already have an Internet connection -- Verizon's (NYSE: VZ ) FiOS, for example, runs its entire television signal over high-speed 'net connections. Second-generation Blu-ray players can do the same, so thanks for those network-friendly specs, Sony (NYSE: SNE ) . TV sets from Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) and others are starting to show up with similar features.
The end result
See what all of this adds up to? In the very near future, fully networked televisions will likely become the standard. If electronics designers and TV service providers like Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA ) care about customer feedback at all, every set will be able to browse the web -- and that includes logging in to that precious, precious Google account.
It's a very small step from there toward letting Google insert marketing messages in your nightly entertainment, directly on the TV or cable-box endpoint. With all of that personalized data steering the vessel, Google-powered ads promise to be more relevant to your life and your interests than the carpet-bombing tactics we see today.
The Mountain View dudes have been moving in this direction for years. King of All Media. Master of Marketing. The advertising bureau to end all advertising bureaus. All of those epithets could apply to Google in the not-too-distant future.
Google needs your trust. SearchWiki is one of the company's first steps toward earning it.