Puzzling Out Google's Blogger Acquisition

Pundits are scratching their heads over Saturday's surprise announcement that Google had bought weblog publishing heavyweight Pyra Labs, but a look at the big picture reveals some intriguing scenarios for "Bloggle's" future.

Google's success has largely been attributed to an obsessive focus on search. While other search engines succumbed alluring gewgaws, transforming themselves into portals, Google's mission has always been to "organize the immense amount of information available on the web."

So why would Google buy Pyra Labs, developer of the widely-used Blogger and Blogspot web self-publishing system? Is Google "selling out" to the urge to become a portal? Are they morphing into a content provider? Are they losing their laser-like focus on search? No, to all of the above.

This isn't the first time Google has purchased a web "community." Google purchased the Deja Usenet newsgroup archives in February 2001, and now runs them as "Google Groups." The interactive, often self-referential nature of many weblogs has many similarities to newsgroup postings.

Yet Google has said little about the Pyra deal, issuing a sparse 77 word statement to the media with few clues about the rationale behind the purchase:

"Google recently acquired Pyra Labs, developers of Blogger -- a self-service weblog publishing tool used by more than one million people. We're thrilled about the many synergies and future opportunities between our two companies. Blogs are a global self-publishing phenomenon that connect Internet users with dynamic, diverse points of view while also enabling comment and participation. In the coming weeks, we will report additional details. Blogger users can expect to see no immediate changes to the service."

Though this statement says little directly, it's possible to infer a few of the "synergies and future opportunities" between Google and Pyra Labs.

First, Pyra has over 1 million registered users, with about a quarter of those actively publishing weblogs. For the most part, these blogs are ad-free, offering an appealing distribution channel for Google's AdWords text based ads.

Second, Google could use the links created by webloggers to enhance its news service. Even though Google's news crawlers are constantly updating Google News' 4,000 sources of information, alternative internet sources are gaining a reputation for breaking important news stories more quickly than traditional media sources.

For example, the New York Times reported that the first hint of problems that doomed the space shuttle Columbia appeared on an online discussion eleven minutes before the Associated Press issued its first wire-service alert.

Intriguingly, news of Google's Pyra acquisition was broken by San Jose Mercury News tech journalist Dan Gillmor on his weblog, moments before Pyra CEO Evan Williams "announced" the news to the audience at the "Live from the Blogosphere" event via a projected screen from the presentation laptop -- by clicking a link to Gillmor's weblog!

Skeptics wonder why Google would need to buy Pyra to have access to these blogs, since most are accessible to Google's crawler anyway. This is true, though by hosting Pyra's "Blogspot" service, Google can theoretically index weblogs in virtually real time, and remove the burden from Pyra's much smaller servers.

Apart from these potential benefits to Google, it seems to me that there are several other less-obvious reasons Google might be interested in weblogs and the Blogger technology.

Though weblogs are often compared to the frequently introspective and self-focused personal web pages hosted by Geocities or Angelfire, most weblogs are far more interactive, actively commenting on and linking to other web content. This commentary and linking behavior offers several potential benefits to a search engine like Google.

Weblog entries are often concise, pithy abstracts of other web content. In that sense, they function as an enhanced directory listing, of sorts.

Currently, Google and all other search engines look at the text surrounding a link to infer content of the page the link points to. With weblogs this text is often much more "focused" and can offer much more context about a page that's pointed to.

We've already seen Google experimenting with letting you see what the web "says" about pages, through its experimental "Webquotes" project available in Google Labs. Weblog postings could be a natural way to enhance these "quotes," potentially improving search results.

Other potential "synergies" between Google and Pyra: personalization and geolocation. While I don't want to speculate too much without first talking with Google (spokesperson David Krane declined to comment), it's interesting to consider ways that the Blogger tools could be integrated with other acquisitions previously made by Google.

In September, 2001, Google purchased Outride, a spinoff from Xerox Parc which was developing tools for discovering web content based on personal interests and behavior. Speaking to the New York Times, Pyra CEO Evan Williams offered a tantalizing glimpse of the possible: "As blogs have taken off, one of the biggest points of pain has been finding what you want to read. What if you could search blogs in real time?"

Or, perhaps, get recommendations based on the personalization technology Google acquired from Outride?

A recent trend with weblogs has been geolocation: publishing the coordinates of the blog author. Last year's Google Programming Contest winner created a geographic search program that enables users to search for web pages within a specified geographic area. Another potential "synergy?"

Speculation aside, Google's acquisition of Pyra Labs is a good thing, both for the search engine and for the weblog community. Google may gain some of the advantages noted above. From the blog community's standpoint, Pyra CEO Evan Williams sums it up nicely: "I was only convinced after brainstorming with our people and their people about why and how we could do much cooler things for our users and the web at an incredibly large scale by being part of Google."

Time to say hello to "Bloogle?"

Google Buys Pyra: Blogging Goes Big-Time
Dan Gillmor's eJournal, Feb. 15, 2003
News of Google's acquisition of Pyra was first broken by San Jose Mercury News journalist Dan Gillmor, on his online weblog.

Evhead, Feb. 16, 2003
Pyra Labs CEO Evan Williams comments on the four month negotiating period with Google, and some of the changes that will (and won't) occur now that it's a Google operation.

Pass Me the Blog, Please
SearchDay, June 14, 2001
What are weblogs, anyway? I'm often asked, "How in the world did you find THAT?" The answer, quite often, is by searching through blogs, the web's equivalent of a sophisticated early warning system.

Google May Get Personal
The Search Engine Report, Oct. 2, 2001
With its acquisition of Outride, Google may be poising itself to go forward into an area of search refinement that no major player has gone successfully before: personalized search results.

Google Announces Programming Contest Winner
SearchDay, June 3, 2002
Google has awarded a $10,000 prize to a programmer who created a program that lets users to search for web pages within a specified geographic area.

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About the author

Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to several information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was About.com's Web Search Guide.