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What Would Google Do?

They have huge data centers, tracking our every move, learning from our behavior and making decisions based on it. They deliver services to us, not products. They are indispensable to our daily lives. The latest crop of web 2.0 companies? How about our banks, insurance companies, and phone companies?

All of these companies have a great deal in common with Web 2.0 icons like Google, so perhaps it’s more productive to think about how they are different. And one way that I’ve found to frame this difference is to ask the question: What would Google do? What would Google do if they were our bank or credit card company, with access to our every purchase, our bank balance, our history of paying late or early, our salary and our savings rate, our preferences for where we like to eat or shop? What would Google do if they were our phone company, with access to our every phone call sent or received, how long we talk to Joe and how quickly we call Mary back? What would Google do if they ran our supermarket’s loyalty card program, tracking our every purchase?

I’m not interested in discussions of whether Google would be “evil” or not, given access to all this additional information. I’m interested in comparing the way these companies act with regard to the data they collect to the way Google (or Amazon, or any other Web 2.0 giant) acts with the data it collects.

It strikes me that one of the big differences between the 1.0 class of data aggregators and the 2.0 class is the difference between “back office” and “live” applications. The credit card company mines its database to select you for direct mail offers; it may even get close to real time in monitoring your card activity for fraud or credit limit detection. But Google or Amazon mines its database in real time and builds the results right into its customer-facing applications.

If Google or Amazon were your bank or credit card, they’d let you know which merchants had the best prices for the same products, so you’d be a smarter shopper next time. They’d let merchants know what products were popular with people who also bought related products. They’d help merchants stock the right products by zip code. They’d let you know when you were spending more on dining out than you have set in your family budget. They’d let you know when you were approaching your credit limit, with a real-time fuel gauge, not just a “Sorry, your card has been declined.”

If Google or Amazon were your phone company, they’d give you access to your entire call history, not just your last ten phone calls. They’d build a dynamic address book for you based on everyone you’d ever talked to — and they’d build p2p phone number lookup from your friends right into that address book. They’d get rid of 411, and just help you search for what you need, and then make the connection for you.

This is one reason I think that Microsoft’s term, “Live Software” is so right on. (I thought of naming this piece “Why Live Software is a better name than Web 2.0.”) It’s unfortunate that Microsoft has chosen that name for its own products only, because it goes right to the heart of what makes Web 2.0 applications so interesting: they are alive, or as close to it as you can get with a computer. They learn from and interact directly with their users (and more specifically, provide services to individual users that benefit from the aggregate interaction of the system with all of its users.)

I first got this idea when I spoke at the Omniture Summit earlier this year. It struck me how different the positioning of Omniture is from the positioning of earlier web monitoring packages like Webtrends or Hitbox. These earlier packages were ultimately reporting packages — back office applications that would slice and dice data that you could study and respond to. But Omniture positions itself as an “online business optimization” package, helping you to optimize your web site dynamically. Omniture does reporting, sure, but its most advanced practitioners use it to build dynamic sites that are self-configuring based on user activity.

Of course, the rub here is that Google’s own analytics package, Google Analytics, is more of an old style reporting package. It just goes to show that not even Google necessarily thinks through the right answer to the “what would Google do?” question. Nonetheless, I think it’s a good question, one that every forward-looking software company, every enterprise, and every web application or site should be thinking very hard about.

How can you turn your data from a back-office asset that benefits only your company into a driver of dynamic user-facing services? How can you make your software more responsive to its users, harnessing their collective intelligence and learning from them? How can you make your software or site more alive?

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  • http://innowave.blogspot.com geekr

    What Would Google (or Amazon) Do is a really interesting question! Have you seen EPIC 2014?

    “It’s the year 2014, and Googlezon, a fearsomely powerful combination of Google and Amazon.com, has crushed traditional media to bits. Taking its place is the computer-generated Evolving Personalized Information Construct—an online package of news, entertainment, blogs, and services drawn from all the world’s up-to-the-minute knowledge and customized to match your preferences. And it’s all collected, packaged, and controlled by Googlezon.”

    Have a look at here:
    http://innowave.blogspot.com/2007/04/is-google-too-powerful.html

  • http://www.5o9inc.com Peter Cranstone

    >> How can you turn your data from a back-office asset that benefits only your company into a driver of dynamic user-facing services? http://www.5o9inc.com – look at the second picture on the home page – the menus change dynamically in reaction the Web service determining the customers contextual information.

    Cheers,

    Peter

  • Ryan

    This is one very clever advert!

  • http://techandfinance.com Tom Groenfeldt

    Hell, I’d be happy if my bank, or Amex, would provide access to 18 months of records so when I get around to finishing my taxes this month I could check my electronic records. And banks that provide just 6-8 months and won’t return checks? Thanks a lot.

  • http://pearbudget.com/ Charlie Park

    They’d get rid of 411, and just help you search for what you need, and then make the connection for you.

    They just did that: 1-800-GOOG-411. And I haven’t had a chance to play around with it too much, but they do connect you for free … and I think that eliminates the long distance bill you’d otherwise have on your phone.

  • Jon

    Google would make the data readily searchable by other parties, but then fall flat on its face when it tried to launch a consumer-facing, non-search related product that helped individuals better organize and analyze their spending habits. There’s a big gap between what people typically describe as “the Google way” and what the company has demonstrated its real capacity and competencies to be. That is, I don’t think that Google is any different than my credit card company because in both cases each company does only one thing well.

  • http://www.soxiam.com soxiam

    If Google were a phone company, yes they would do all those wonderful things. But they would also put ads on every single one of those services you mentioned and when asked they would answer “telecommunication is still our core business” without blinking.

  • http://yeoldeclue.com/blog Michael Sparks

    It’s just struck me that your description of web 2.0 and the wish that you could call it live software given the characterisation above and previous ones actually has a very old historical precedent.

    You’re talking about intelligence augmented applications. Intelligence either harvested from real individuals (digg this/that, page rank, rank your purchases, etc) and then smoothed (by having several to average) and correlated to give better emergent information “This site might have the answer”, “you might like this”, etc. Or it can be the result of AI techniques. (either brute force or subtler)

    Either way you’re talking about applications we find useful due to the fact that they’re intelligence augmented. The other aspect is *why* we find them useful. I was struck a while back by another commenter on radar who said “Intelligence is the scarcest resource”. Any tool that allows us to reuse the intelligence from previous users is naturally going to be preferable.

    However, that’s not what I meant by historical precedent. The idea of computer applications for augmentation of course goes back to Doug Engelbart & his ideas of bootstrapping. It seems clear that one core reason was for the bettering of humanity. I think there’s a fair few applications for IA that are doing that. (eg the OLPC wiki is an example. Open source is IA. Wikipedia is most definitely IA, etc)

    As a contrast, Usenet is a conversation, not intelligence augmented. Web links into a usenet archive however has intelligence embedded into it, which then allows an application designed to find this to provide useful information.

  • http://www.ecademy.com Julian Bond

    They’d sell AdWords placements on your bank statement based on what you bought and where.

    Unlike Amazon, they’d give away premium services paid for with advertising.

  • http://www.blahblahtech.com/2007/05/vote-for-google.html Wayne Smallman

    Hi Tim!

    I think you’ve hit on a hot topic, here. And it’s something I’ve been thinking about myself, if from the bottom of your article and not the top.

    Personally, I think Google need to have a big sit-down and look through their applications.

    There’s a ton of things they do well, but would work so much better if they worked together.

    Yeah, some do (like Analytics and AdWords) but it’s not enough.

    They have the data, yes, but they just don’t seem to have the holistic eye, or an appreciation of the bigger picture with regards to their very own applications.

    I call this forgotten organic knowledge: it’s the stuff we learn, but forget the value of over time…

  • http://www.flaxen.com mpg

    But, for some deep background and food for thought, see also the case study in this month’s Harvard Business Review: “The Dark Side of Customer Analytics”…

  • http://michaelbernstein.com Michael R. Bernstein

    “They’d build a dynamic address book for you based on everyone you’d ever talked to”

    And it would be ranked by using a combination of frequency and recency.

    They would also sell advertising/coupon space for Pizza next to the number for the local Chinese take-out, and for credit counseling services next to the number of the bill-collection agency that has been calling you.

    BTW, if they were your credit-card company, they might simply *stop* showing you ads for anything if your credit score drops too low.

  • http://www.onlinespiele-1.de Kostenlose Onlinespiele

    To me what Google is and is becoming is getting scaryer every day. Way to omnipotent! I am really starting to become paranoid what masses of data they could be collecting about me. All those AdWords Ads everywhere… I hope they stay far away from “evil” …

  • http://michaelbernstein.com Michael R. Bernstein

    Google is *not* becoming omnipotent. Far from it. At most, they are on their way to omniscience…

  • http://www.evansink.com Perry

    Great stuff, Tim. It’s interesting to watch the commentary thread focus on the Google issue – to me, this isn’t a Google post. I take your message as a succinct challenge to rethink status-quo. I’ve applied your post on my blog as a call to action for our clients.

    This feels a bit more than the “live web” per se, so I’d challenge your notion of “live web” being a better label. You also capture the the principles of deep data mining and consumer centricity as hallmarks of reinvention – it feels like you need all of this combined with the conversational backbone to redesign the world in a 2.0 model.

  • http://exacteditions.blogspot.com Adam Hodgkin

    For some reason I didnt catch this earlier. Its a fascinating theme. And I echo Wayne’s point about coming at this from the bottom of your post, rather than the top. Can Google do and integrate all these applications well, or do we need to envisage a web in which there is genuinely collabarotive HCI?…. so a good Reading Application probably cannot be built just by harnessing the Google-specific streams.

    http://exacteditions.blogspot.com/2007/05/new-angle-on-web-20.html

    The future of libraries and authors will call for a very open archicture of engagement with content.

  • http://www.trovaconto.com Conti

    When I first saw google, it seemed almost too minimal to be a real search engine. Everybody else had portals with banners and graphics and of course links. Too many, way too many. Enter Google.

  • http://www.festgeld-portal.de/comdirekt-tagesgeld.htm Tagesgeld

    The key to googles success was simplicity, thats it.