There's little doubt that Google Inc. is indeed king of online media. In August 2007 alone, Google captured 57% of worldwide market share among search engines, with more than 37 billion search inquiries, according to analyst firm comScore Inc. in Reston, Va. Add to that a mind-boggling stock price of US$711 per share on Nov. 5. Not surprisingly, this dominance has led to endless rumors about where Google is headed next.
Dozens of blogs feed the rumor mill daily, and speculation about Google's next move ranges from stories of an undersea cable to Asia to talk about the upcoming gPhone, new data centers and a Google virtual world.
Only Google knows for sure -- but Google watchers have their own educated guesses on the company's next business maneuver. They're going out on a limb with some bold predictions for 2008 and beyond.
1 'You're Watching ABC Google'
In its quest for more advertising revenue, the company might acquire more-traditional media properties.
"They'll move into radio and television at some point," says Rob Enderle, principle analyst at Enderle Group in San Jose. And if that happens, media buyers would take their advertising dollars to Google first to leverage its multimedia offerings. "I'm not yet convinced that they'll buy a network," Enderle adds, "but that's a possibility" -- as is the purchase of a group of radio stations that Google could aggressively shift to an online delivery model that could enhance the value of its advertising package. At the very least, he says, Google will partner with media outlets for exclusive relationships to secure its revenue stream.
"Their end goal, if they're successful, is to become bigger and more powerful than the combination of Microsoft, IBM and AT&T in their heyday," Enderle says. "And they actually have a strategy that could do it ... by either taking the [ad] money or trivializing the contributions by the other companies."
2 Get Your Free Google PC
In 2008 and beyond, most of the hardware and services that we now pay for are going to be available from Google for free -- or at drastically reduced prices, says Chris Winfield, president of 10e20 LLC, a global search marketing company based in New York. Cell phones, wireless Internet access and even laptops will all be completely ad-supported. "A lot of people would gladly take a free laptop [in return for watching] some ads every now and then," he adds.
Google has already started down this path. It bought Urchin Web analytics software in March 2005 and then offered portions of it for free to users as Google Analytics. It also rebranded Keyhole 3-D satellite imagery as Google Earth and offered it up for free.
"They do that to get more control and more eyeballs and more people using their products," Winfield says. "It would be the same with a laptop or cell phone."
3 'Come See the Softer Side of Google'
What better way to tout a high-profile company than to advertise during a high-profile sporting event? Look for Google to run a feel-good commercial plugging its virtues during a future Super Bowl. "We might see their first entry into true advertising," says Rand Fishkin, president and CEO of SEOmoz, a search engine optimization firm in Seattle. "They have observed what Microsoft has done [in TV ads]. It can make an impact."
A commercial depicting Google as making the world a better place might help its image, Enderle suggests. "They're reaching a scale much like Microsoft did a decade ago, where people were getting very concerned about their motives and power," he says. "That's when you need an overarching brand campaign to make people more comfortable with who you are and where you're going."
4 Google Buys an Ad Agency
A Google ad campaign might even spark a play for one of the world's best advertising agencies. "There are a lot of folks that would love to have that Budweiser ad team, Enderle says. "With the amount of money that Google's got, they could probably do it. Google is positioning itself as an überagency anyway; I wouldn't be surprised if they bought an ad agency."
5 Google Applications Finally Take Off!
Google has had relatively little success in getting users to adopt services outside of its core search offering. Less than 5% of Google's users use its home page for anything other than search, says Peter Hershberg, managing partner at Reprise Media, a search engine marketing firm in New York. But that will change in 2008, when Google is reportedly set to launch its gPhone.
"This may be the true rationale behind the launch of mobile gPhones -- which is convenience," Hershberg says. "The gPhone will undoubtedly have out-of-the-box integration with every Google application that's out there. The value in having all that information under the Google cloud in your pocket at any time may be the reason why people finally start to adopt these applications."
Users could sit in a doctor's office and pull up their medical records. Or they could use the phone to check out at a retailer rather than carrying credit cards. With Bluetooth technology, users could beam presentations and documents to desktop computers from their phones without carrying storage. They could upload mobile pictures to Picasa, Google's photo software, and blog directly to Blogger from their phones. "It will integrate all of these services together," Hershberg says.
Google's $3.1 billion acquisition of online advertising company DoubleClick Inc. will drive its application strategy even further, he adds. "When the DoubleClick acquisition closes, then they've got a real targeting layer to put on top of everything else, where they'll have demographic information, your IP address and the level of specificity where ad-targeting becomes that much more sophisticated as well."
6 Google Offers Local Reviews
Some 63% of U.S. Internet users performed local searches online in July 2006, up 43% from a year earlier, according to a comScore study. With local content growing in popularity, "I think [Google] will get into local reviews," Fishkin says.
"Google is one of the weakest when it comes to having content around local search and user reviews," he says. Given the popularity of local services from Yahoo, Yelp and Citysearch, Fishkin says he expects the company to invest in or partner with a local review provider or a large travel portal. "Google is going to want to serve more and complete data to users with their searches," he predicts.
7 Google Takes Another Stab at a Social Networking
Google tanked in the U.S. with its Orkut social network, though the network is widely popular in Brazil and India. Look for Google to take another, bolder run at this important market in 2008.
"Right now, they don't have any real strong presence, and they know it's the Holy Grail for them," Winfield says. "A site like Facebook controls so much of users' activities, just like Google wants to do. So it's very important to have a foothold in there."
In October, Microsoft announced that it would pay $240 million for a 1.6% stake in social networking upstart Facebook after a high-profile battle with Google and Yahoo Inc. The investment boosted Facebook's valuation to $15 billion and positions Microsoft as Google's biggest competitor in the search advertising market.
"That's why they're going to make major moves in that category -- after losing that to Microsoft," Winfield says. "I see them either making a huge play [to acquire another social network] or building their own."
An internal project reportedly under way at Google encompasses a grand plan to build a social layer across all of its applications. According to TechCrunch.com co-editor Erick Schonfeld's blog, Google plans to use the feed engine that powers Google Reader (known internally as Reactor) to create "activity streams" for other applications, akin to Facebook's news and mini feeds.
With Facebook valued at $15 billion and MySpace already owned by big rival News Corp., Google will have to set its sights on smaller or foreign social networks if it wants an acquisition target, Winfield says.
8 Get ready for the Google Operating System
"It would not shock me if there was an announcement next year that Google was going to put into beta an operating system on Linux, an open-source system, or something like it," Fishkin says.
Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at Stcollett@ aol.com.