Of the four new product announcements made last week at Google Press Day [http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleId=15777], Google Co-op (http://www.google.com/coop) looks to have the greatest potential impact. At first glance, it would seem that Google has now entered the social bookmarking arena, along with services like del.icio.us, Furl, Spurl, Shadows, Scuttle, Yahoo! MyWeb 2.0, Ma.gnolia, etc. All of these services, and many others, offer ways for users to share and find collections of linked material built around and by communities of user interests. Regardless of the present quality of Google Co-op—and some users with whom I spoke consider it anemic at this point—the entry of giant Google into this arena, along with Yahoo!, could mark a sea change in the importance and growth of such tools. The product manager for Google Co-op, Shashi Seth, said that, as Google Co-op grows, lessons drawn from its content and usage are expected to lead to improvements in search quality in the main Google.com service.
Describing the process involved in Google Co-op, Seth stated: "Anyone can contribute. We expect it to work in a three-part process. At the first stage, the contributor will ask users to subscribe with specific pieces, relying on user trust and desire to utilize their content. At the initial stage contributors will ‘sell' the Co-op product on their own sites and bring their own audience. Then we will tally how often they are used and the level of interaction and whether to build a signal. As confidence increases, the contributor has a better chance of getting into the [Google Co-op] directory. Once they are in the directory, it will make it easier for others to subscribe. And finally, with more quality proven, the information may affect Google Search itself."
As to the issue of quality control, Seth indicated that contributors control their own content. They can invite colleagues to make more contributions, build their offerings, and can withdraw items from their content or the whole account at any time.
Google Co-op is open to any organizations, businesses, or individuals who agree to label Web pages relevant to specific areas of expertise or who create subscriber links for searchers. Both content providers and content users in Google Co-op will need Google Accounts, at least if searchers plan to subscribe to any labeled content. (For information on the Google Account program, go to http://www.google.com/support/accounts.) Once users subscribe to a provider's content, all of the provider's labels and subscribed links will then go into the user's search result, affecting relevance ranking and constituting a sort of clustering of result alternatives. Interested users can check out content and providers and subscribe at http://www.google.com/coop/directory. Available in English, the service has launched in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.K., as well as the U.S.
The service consists of hierarchical groupings. Topics are any areas of interest, broad or specific. The current topics already in development include destination guides, health, autos, computer and video games, photo and video equipment, and stereo and home theater. Within topics, contributors will attach labels that categorize results within specific topics. These labels will help users refine their searches. Annotations involve attaching a label to a Web page, Web site, or set of Web pages in a URL pattern. Pages can have multiple labels and annotations. Contributors can upload up to 1,000 annotations at present. The presence of annotations will boost the relevance ranking of associated Web pages in search results for the labels. Contributors can add labeled content to existing topics by using the labels listed on that topic's page or create their own labels and topics. (For details, go to the Google Co-op Topics Developer Guide at http://google.com/coop/docs/guide_topics.html.) In addition to topical labels, contributors can assign a context for when the labels apply, i.e., the appropriate application for the expected intent of the search. Google expects contributors to label their own content and any other high-quality pages relevant to the topic area.
Contributors to the Google Co-op program will set up profile pages that identify their background and the information they provide, e.g., the kind of labels they have added, duration of time with Google Co-op, types of subscribers, recent contributions, links to their own Web sites or blogs, etc.
Content for the program should come from the open Web that Google already links. No contributions may violate Google's standard Terms of Service, which exclude the following:
- Illegal content
- Invasions of personal privacy
- Child pornography
- Content that interferes with the functioning of any Google products
- Promotions of hate or incitement of violence
- Violations of copyright
For a complete list of terms, see Google's Digital Millennium Copyright Act policy statement at http://www.google.com/dmca.html.
Publishers looking to contribute to Google Co-op can set up their own subscribed links. (For details on this XML-driven process, go to the Subscribed Links Developer Guide at http://www.google.com/coop/docs/guide_subscribed_links.html.) The subscribed links will access special features, e.g., real-time restaurant availability from OpenTable or the latest celebrity information from People magazine. At present, if multiple subscribed links are triggered by a query, only one appears in full with links to the others, but in time, relevance and usage may influence placement. This would seem to indicate that the earlier a publisher joins the program and the more complete and effective its offerings, the better the chance for satisfactory placement.
Google has set up a Google Co-op group as an unmoderated forum for open discussion on the program. Currently access is through Google Groups, but Seth expects a blog to become active within a couple of weeks.
The initial examples of Google Co-op focus on health and city guides, e.g., restaurant and movie information, but Google expects the interests of searchers to expand the range of topics rapidly. One colleague who examined the Health category as it now exists found it distinctly "underwhelming" and even wondered whether some of the "heavyweights" now affiliated with the service (e.g., Kaiser, Harvard, Mayo, CDC, etc.) should be ashamed to be associated with the service as it stands. However, it is early days yet, and, frankly, it is hard to see how one could recruit for volunteers and form a strong network of providers when the service itself was still under a news embargo until last week.
At present, Seth indicated Google has no plans whatsoever to monetize Google Co-op. When it comes to adding proprietary content, rather than only open Web content, he believed there were various ways to solve that problem and several business models, but the company had none in mind yet.
Quality control. Monetization. Proprietary content. Appeal to contributors. Appeal to searchers. All issues that only time will tell.