Google continued its parade of new product announcements last week with the launch of Google Video, a service that offers textual searches of television programs. In contrast to previous Google beta launches, however, Google Video appears to be a relatively immature product, perhaps launched early to counter competitors' offerings. It proved to be a busy week in the world of digital video delivery: Yahoo announced improvements to its own Web video search product, Microsoft announced deals to deliver on-demand television over fiber optic networks owned by Baby Bells, and Comcast revealed that television networks such as Fox are not willing to license their programming for on-demand delivery over cable.
Google co-founder Larry Page was not modest about the import of the Google Video announcement; he declared: "What Google did for the Web, Google Video aims to do for television. This preview release demonstrates how searching television can work today. Users can search the content of TV programs for anything, see relevant thumbnails, and discover where and when to watch matching television programs."
Search Google Video for a subject of interest—say, Johnny Carson—and you see a hit list with thumbnail sketches of relevant television broadcasts. Adjacent to each photo is a text snippet that includes your search terms in context. Google Video accomplishes this magic by capturing streams of text from services that provide closed captioning of television content for the benefit of the hearing-impaired. The company says it began indexing content in December 2004.
It's surprising to test a product named "Video" only to find that there's no video to consume. It seems that every page of hits yields the statement "Video is currently not available." In response to the question "Can I play the videos that Google Video finds?" the Google Video FAQ states, "Not yet, but stay tuned ..."
Larry Page states: "We are working with content owners to improve this service by providing additional enhancements such as playback." The company touts initial content partnership deals with PBS, the NBA, Fox News, and C-SPAN.
Google Video also aspires to be TV Guide. In addition to searching television text content, Google Video also allows you to search for shows within your ZIP code. Click on one of the shows in the hit list—say, Desperate Housewives—and you'll see a link for local listings.
For now, the listings service is only available in the U.S., as the key to your locality is your ZIP code, which is set in Preferences. (The default area, of course, is Mountain View, Calif., Google's home.)
One could even argue that Google has misnamed its new product. Google Video offers a way to search television content, and it offers a way to search local TV listings. But there is a lot more to video than television; one wonders why they didn't name the product Google TV. Yahoo!, for its part, launched its own video product last week—a tool to search the Web for actual, playable video clips. Perhaps Google was influenced by its rival's impending announcement. Or perhaps Google plans to expand beyond television, given that Google Images searches freely available images on the Web.
Another shortcoming is Google Video's relative inattention to the currency of a given video snippet. More than 1 month after the tsunami, a search for that term yields a hit list mostly from early January. There is no obvious way to sort the hit list by date, by source, or by type of programming. (You can, however, filter by title using the syntax title:nightline.)
Another potential problem lies in the very nature of closed captioning. For live events, captioning is done in real time. Most of the time, the results are surprisingly good, but typos are common. Relying on such a text feed means Google Video will lose a great deal of accuracy in matching search terms to text. At least for prerecorded fare, presumably, Google eventually will license scripts and transcripts from its formal content partners.
Google Video may also want to employ robots to compile its transcripts. In December, San Francisco-based Blinkx (http://www.blinkx.tv) announced searchable indexes of television and radio content. Blinkx claims that its automated speech and video analysis tools provide a superior mechanism for retrieval and research. Blinkx searches TV content from the BBC, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, and others, with Fox News coming soon. (For more information, see the January 2005 NewsLink article at http://www.infotoday.com/newslink/newslink0501.htm#spotlight.)
Compared to previous Google product offerings, Google Video is relatively immature. Even a beta announcement from Google usually brings a high-performance tool. Google News was useful the day it was announced, although quirks remain. (Google News is still labeled "beta.") Google Catalogs, Google Images, and even the recent Google Scholar all showed great utility from the beginning. Google Video, by contrast, offers a relative paucity of content and a lack of needed functions. Writing in MediaPost's MediaDailyNews, Gavin O'Malley quoted Charlene Li of Forrester Research: "Google's latest innovation is likely to disappoint many people." Google Video director Jennifer Feikin told O'Malley, "This is just the beginning."
One person who's excited about Google Video is Brian Lamb, founder of C-SPAN. In a statement released on Google's Web site, Lamb says: "Our mission is to give viewers complete access to public affairs programming and we are committed to use new technologies to enhance the value of our services. This partnership with Google further demonstrates how new technologies will expand our audience and make it easier to conduct online searches of our content for information most relevant to them."
Political junkies, in general, and C-SPAN lovers, in particular, will no doubt be delighted as well. Imagine being able to search every word uttered by any politician, across multiple years and venues.
Those who've promised convergence for so many years probably never anticipated that search engines would be the doorway.
Finally, here's an interesting scenario from one technology observer, Charles Severance, senior research programmer at the University of Michigan's Duderstadt Center: "Imagine that it's 2008 and you're watching the Super Bowl. The announcers mention the record breaking play that took place back in Super Bowl 2005. An astute viewer will go to Google Video and search for ‘super bowl record 2005.' The hit list shows the historic play from 3 years earlier. Click on the link, and you see the famous play once again. Now imagine Google Video indexing your home videos and your personal TiVo stash. The sky's the limit."