Google: Desperately Seeking Shoppers?

It's funny. When I saw headlines revealing that Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) will offer coupons in conjunction with Google Maps searches, the first thing I thought of were those fat envelopes of local coupons that one gets through snail mail from ValPak. Come to find out, Google's coupon initiative is actually courtesy of ValPak. Everybody loves a bargain, but when Google goes this old school, is it time to wonder about the success of its ancillary, e-commerce-related initiatives?

Google Maps may be "the best" ("true that, double true," in the words of the Lazy Sunday guys from the now infamous Saturday Night Live skit), and it is indeed a cool application that I've used many times when looking for directions. And of course, it does give users the ability to pinpoint local merchants. On the other hand, the coupon initiative has old-school elements. For one, users have to print up copies of the coupons to take into the stores.

The move is meant to give shoppers incentives to use Google Maps, which might make one wonder whether its much ballyhooed potential for localized business search and related advertising has been fully realized, even if everybody agrees that as a straightforward map application, it certainly is super cool. However, while Google Maps may have a respectable spot as the third-most-popular map application, according to HitWise data last May, with 7.5% of the market ... well, guess what -- Hitwise said that Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) Mapquest has 56.3% of the market and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) Maps has 20.5%.

Along similar e-commerce lines, the Associated Press recently noted that comparison shopping search product Froogle is no longer on Google's main homepage as a text link, pushed aside as it is by Google Video's prominent placement. (You can still access Froogle from the main page by clicking on the "more" link.) Although Google told AP that the change was simply a "philosophical" one, the article cited Nielsen/NetRatings data in pointing out that Froogle, with 6.6 million unique visitors in July, is well eclipsed by other shopping comparison sites like Shopzilla.com (17.2 million visitors) and Yahoo!'s shopping hub (11.1 million visitors).

Google may have carved itself a fabulous niche in search, but many of us have started wondering whether the search giant's constant flow of products -- most of which are already dominated by powerful existing players, such as Yahoo!, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) , and even newcomer YouTube -- will often be in vain, not to mention expensive, if people simply don't see any compelling reason to switch from the products they already use.

Coupons certainly could give users an incentive to use Google Maps, and in some ways it makes perfect sense that Google's advertising expertise might make it a no-brainer when it comes to taking the place of old-fashioned advertising circulars and serving up more personalized bargains, to boot. Still, when it comes to the big picture, maybe there's a lot to contemplate here. For a while there, it seemed every time Google said it was launching a product, everybody got excited about how Google was going to "kill" the competition. In many instances, it's been proven that it's not a given. Maybe old-school coupon clipping speaks to Google's desperation to get on the map when it comes to popularizing -- and monetizing -- some of its secondary products.

If you're searching for more recent Google talk, check out the following Foolish articles:

Microsoft is aMotley Fool Inside Valuerecommendation. Time Warner is aMotley Fool Stock Advisorrecommendation.Take the newsletter that best fits your investing style for a 30-day free trial.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.


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