Google's Growing Grasp

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It's hard not to ogle Google. As the search giant picks up new partners ranging from MySpace and MTV to eBay and XM Satellite Radio, tech watchers are eying the Web colossus with growing curiosity. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company spent the summer striking a series of advertising and content deals, buying up promising start-ups and launching new products that stretch far beyond search.

In addition to offering free new online word processing and spreadsheet programs, Google debuted a software package that provides businesses with email, calendaring and Web-page creation tools. It inked mega-million-dollar deals with eBay and MySpace to help provide the ads on their sites. And this week Google announced a new partnership with Intuit to help small business owners manage their online ad campaigns.

The sequence of steps suggests the company may be ready to expand its focus from "organizing the world's information" — its oft-quoted objective — to something broader. "They're moving from organizing your information to organizing your life," says Oren Etzioni, an industry expert and professor of computer science at the University of Washington. "In starting up services that haven't been at the core of their business, Google is experimenting to see if they can expand your everyday interaction with them," says Etzioni.

Shedding the renegade simplicity it started with just a search box on an otherwise blank page ­ Google has morphed into a multifaceted multimedia corporation with hundreds of products and services. Acting on its founding principle (“Don’t be evil”), it has already launched Google.org , which includes both a charitable foundation and a for-profit venture that supports entrepreneurial solutions to global problems. One of the first projects: a hybrid car engine that reportedly runs on electricity, ethanol and gasoline. Among Google’s newest online offerings? CheckOut, a tool for simplifying online payments, Book Search, for digging into printed texts, and Google Notebook, for collecting snippets of online information. Critics question whether there's a common thread linking the services together, but those who use Google's tools know they do have something in common: they're easy to use, free, and help make using the Web a little easier. The challenge, though, for Google, as it builds a library of handy services, is maintaining the strength of its key asset, which is still its search engine.

To maintain its lead over Yahoo, Ask.com, Microsoft and others, Google will soon have to start harvesting the fruits of its sizable investment in search research. Search engines aren't yet equipped to furnish anything other than simple facts or links to relevant pages, but searchers will soon expect engines to answer complex questions that will require Google and others­ to gather data from multiple sites. Google, Yahoo and Ask.com already offer limited factoids, spitting out facts they draw out of a Web page containing relevant information. Type in "languages of Finland" or "government type of Switzerland," for instance, and before you get to the lengthy list of relevant links, Google will tell you that 93.4% of Finns speak Finnish (5.9% speak Swedish), or that Switzerland is a federal republic. If you just want that tidbit of information, you no longer have to bother clicking through links. Ask.com has a similar feature, which can reply to basic questions like "Is it raining in Boston?" or "How much is $100 in euros?" But the need for search-engine refinement comes with more complex questions. If you want to know what firms have high-paying engineering openings in Nevada, the primary search engines today are stumped. In the future, they'll scan relevant databases to pluck out the information you need, obviating the step where you poke through thousands of links trying to find some useful ones. But whether you'll rely on Google for that next generation of queries is an open question, one for which Google—and its competitors—are already searching for an answer.