Google Buys Blogging Company - But Why?

NOTE: Also see the Google Throws Hat Into The Contextual Advertising Ring article written since this story, which explains how Google is now showing advertising as predicted on sites.

News broke earlier this week that Google has purchased Pyra Labs, the company behind the popular weblog creation tool and Blogspot, a weblog hosting service. So far, Google is staying quiet about what it hopes to gain by such a purchase, leaving plenty of people speculating.

Search Engine Watch associate editor Chris Sherman and I certainly want in on the speculating fun! Chris gives a rundown on the purchase and his perspective on it in his Puzzling Out Google's Blogger Acquisition article.

As for myself, I'm guessing one chief reason Google has done this is for ad distribution reasons. The Blogger network features plenty of high-quality web sites where Google could place contextually-relevant paid listings.

Huh? How can Google put its paid listings, which are generated by search requests, out on pages where no searches take place? Simple. Google just needs to make an educated guess as to what a page is about. That's easily done in various ways. Google could analyze its search logs to see which sites in the network are coming up for particular queries. In other cases, the content of the weblog makes it obvious what it's about.

For example, a current "Blog Of Note" powered by Blogger is Tax Observer. Google could easily decide that the site is suitable for anyone bidding on the word "taxes" within its AdWords program. This means that though no search request was generated, ads linked to the word "taxes" might still appear at the web site. Similar contextual targeting is already done with paid listings by major Overture-affiliate Applied Semantics and European paid listing-provider Espotting.

Wouldn't those using the Blogger system object to this? Many in the system pay nothing to make use of the service. In exchange for continued free service, it could be a requirement to display Google's paid listings in a standard fashion. If you dislike the ads, that would be a reason to upgrade to the paid version (currently $35 per year). Google could even sweeten the deal for both free and paid Blogger users by offering to pay affiliate fees on revenue generated by the ads.

Couldn't Google do this with having to buy Blogger? Sure, and it still may offer such contextual ads to anyone with weblogs or indeed anyone with a popular, topical web site period, weblog or not. But it's also likely that buying Blogger involves some other benefits, as well.

One of these is user base. By picking up Blogger, Google gains over a million bloggers (some paying annual fees) and adds to its site a popular way for people to express themselves on the web. In the 1990s, it was "home pages" that were touted as the easy way for anyone to get a presence on the web. Today, weblogs make it even easier for people to express themselves and share information, plus they are largely seen as more sophisticated than having a "home page."

The comparison to home page-hosting services is critical. When search engines transformed themselves into portals in the late 1990s, offering home page building services was one of the essential features they all grabbed. Yahoo probably made the biggest splash when it bought GeoCities in early 1999, and the move was seen as a way to capture users and keep them associated with Yahoo.

Google has long said it has no intention of becoming a portal, but so far, it's hard not to see the acquisition of Blogger as adding a portal feature in the same way that Yahoo did when it bought GeoCities. We'll almost certainly see an eventual option from the Google home page inviting visitors to create their own weblogs using Blogger. It will be discrete. It won't get in the way of searching at Google. Yet, it will have nothing to do with search, a giant departure for the company.

To further run the parallel, Lycos just added weblogging services this month. San Jose Mercury news technology columnist Dan Gillmor, who first reported on the Google purchase of Pyra, notes that AOL is also looking at doing something similar. Will Yahoo follow suit? It wouldn't be surprising, given the past history of portals following one another. But interestingly, this time it is Google -- the supposed non-portal -- that may set the dominos in action.

When Google bought the Deja usenet archives, what some call its first "content" purchase, that was almost accidental. Google never revealed how much it paid, but there was no suggestion that it was very much. The Deja archives pretty much fell into Google's lap, plus they fit very nicely into Google's goal of making all things searchable. Indeed, Usenet searching had a long history of being offered right alongside web searching.

It may also turn out that Blogger was another sweet deal that couldn't be resisted, a company looking for a buyer and offering a bargain price. However, unlike with Deja, the match between Blogger and Google's laser-focus on search isn't there. From my perspective, I see Google getting no search gains by buying Blogger.

The best search-related explanation that I've seen some offer behind Google's move is the idea that the company needs to purchase Blogger to better understand how to index weblogs, which continue to grow in popularity and stature. Webloggers in the past have been blamed for "Google Bombing" some of Google's results, so perhaps by purchasing Blogger, Google can do a better job of preventing this, some speculation goes. Other suggestions are that if Google understands weblogs better, it can have fresher results -- especially news results.

To me, such reasons are weak, at best. Google doesn't need to purchase a weblog company to better understand weblogs any more than it needs to purchase a web hosting company to better understand web sites, a home page building company to better understand home pages, a newspaper to better understand news sites or an online merchant to better understand merchant sites. Google already interacts with millions of different sites of all natures. It can, and does, already use the entire web as its free laboratory.

Here's another way to consider it. Google recently decided to set up Froogle, a search index of merchant listings. However, it didn't decide to purchase Miva, a major ecommerce tools provider, in order to better understand the complexities of shopping web sites (and those complexities make any indexing issues with weblogs seem like child's play). In fact, buying Miva wouldn't necessarily have helped it with other shopping search platforms, such as Yahoo Shopping (formerly Viaweb). Instead, Google managed to come up with a system to embrace many shopping sites, all by itself.

Given this, if Google really is looking to do something special for weblogs, it hardly needed to buy Blogger. Furthermore, doing so wouldn't have necessarily solved any potential problems for the other major weblog providers of Radio Userland and Movable Type.

In conclusion, I'm dubious that the Blogger purchase will bring any great search improvements to Google. That doesn't mean that it won't be nice feature for Google to offer to its visitors, nor that that purchase will be a great boon to Blogger users and well as weblogs in general. And maybe there really will be some great hidden search benefits yet to come. Only Google knows for sure, and we'll all learn more, in the coming weeks.

Puzzling Out Google's Blogger Acquisition
SearchDay, Feb. 17, 2003

This is Chris Sherman's take on the Blogger purchase. In contrast to me, he doesn't see any portalization involved with the move and does see potential search gains. We've decided to settle our debate with dueling pistols at dawn. Fortunately, those things aren't that accurate!

Google gets Blogger and better
The Guardian, Feb. 17, 2003,12449,897358,00.html

This is a great article that especially looks at how the deal may help Blogger. But the benefits for Google? Even the author seems to stretch for reasons. "Along with many of its rivals, Google is poor at indexing weblogs, which can change more rapidly than it can cope with." I didn't realize that Google was widely acknowledged as being poor at this. If it is, that's a pretty easy thing to refresh. You simply revisit this set of sites faster. Google and others with news search engines are easily able to do this already and without needing to buy a weblog hosting service.

A proposal for Bloogle & Google buys Blogger, Feb. 16 & 17, 2003

Moreover's founder and now avid weblogger Nick Denton comments on the acquisition. See his entries for Feb. 16 and 17. In one, he writes, advises Google, "Treat all weblog publishing systems equally. Google should undertake to refresh the index for a Movable Type blog, for instance, as rapidly as it does for a site produced by Blogger."

Actually, Google should undertake to refresh its index as often as required for any web page that has updated content, not just whether it is a weblog. And in fact, Google and other search engines have already been working to do just that.

In another, he asks, "Will Google use weblog links to improve Google News? Right now, news stories are selected by an algorithm which counts the number of similar stories, and promotes widespread items."

My understanding is that similarity analysis is done in order to prevent showing too many different versions of the same story. As to which story gets picked to represent them all, that's based on the "reputation" of the news sources and the timeliness of the story (see the past SearchDay article on Google News). Weblog links already would be factored into a reputation analysis -- and purchasing Blogger doesn't help this.