Google Searches Its Soul

By Ben Elgin Despite claims to the contrary, over the past couple of years Google Inc. (GOOG) has evolved from a simple search engine to a full-featured Internet portal, offering news headlines, maps, e-mail, and more. But Google's fast-growing roster of products and services poses a vexing dilemma: How can the company make its users aware of these myriad features without cluttering up its famously spartan Web site?

The six-year-old company took its first stab at addressing this problem on May 19, unveiling a feature that allows users to customize a more robust Google home page. Users can build their own personalized home page to include such things as stock quotes, weather forecasts, and previews of e-mail messages. The new home-page offering is central to the company's efforts to "bring existing Google services together in a more cohesive fashion," says Marissa Mayer, director of consumer Web products.

ONE STOP? The move signals a stepped-up challenge to Internet portals, primarily Yahoo (YHOO), Microsoft's (MSFT) MSN, and Time Warner's (TWX) AOL unit. Although Google is far ahead of these competitors among Web searchers because of its speedy technology, all three portals boast more overall traffic than Google due to their long-established Internet offerings -- e-mail, fantasy sports, music downloads, etc.

By putting its growing roster of products and services onto a single start page for users, Google could lure people more inclined to a full-featured jumping-off point for the Web. "It's one way to make the world's information more accessible to users," says David Edwards, an analyst at American Technology Research.

It also serves as a much-needed effort to invigorate some of Google's peripheral sites. Sure, some of Google's new offerings -- such as free jumbo-size e-mail accounts and a mapping feature that includes aerial satellite images -- have attracted heaps of attention and millions of users.

But others, such as its online shopping engine Froogle, have received scant notice. As of January, Froogle ranked as the sixth-most-trafficked comparison-shopping site in the U.S., generating about one-tenth the traffic of Yahoo's second-ranked shopping site, according to comScore Media Metrix.

GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE. By bringing its products together in a single place, Google is betting that users will spend more time acclimating themselves to its various offerings. "We're not doing away with the classic home page," says Mayer, who introduced the feature at a daylong press event. But, "some users want more, and we should give it to them."

During the gathering, Google also previewed the next release of its satellite-imaging software. Dubbed Google Earth, the product is derived from its acquisition of Keyhole Corp. last year. The desktop software lets users fly over cities or geographic landmarks, allowing them to zoom in enough to see individual houses. Previously focused on the U.S., the software's latest version, due out in the coming weeks, will include some international locations, from Bermuda to Santiago, Chile. Google, it seems, has an eye on a whole world of opportunities. Elgin is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau

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