Yesterday's annual press day at Google saw the debut of a number of interesting services. A new beta version of Google Desktop offers enhanced desktop "widget" software that can be dragged to a PC desktop or in some instances dragged from a Google personal homepage on the Web to the desktop. Nifty tricks that publishers should pay attention to, as they offer an opportunity to provide content in a key part of a user's screen real estate (see our earlier entry on Google's widgets). Also of interest are expanded desktop search capabilities and a new feature called Google Notebook due out next week. Google Notebook is billed as making it easier to collect and republish content from the Web. All part of the ongoing war with Microsoft for providing a usable desktop that blends Web content with personal and enterprise content, and all important evolutions in their own right.
But the big news for online publishers this week is Google Co-op, a new feature that is attempting to blend content subscription and reference models with the search engine paradigm. Google Co-op has two main components: topic maps and subscription tools. Publishers both amateur and professional are encouraged to submit content from their Web sites to Google Co-op with XML tags that make it easy for their content to be categorized in topic maps that appear above the main Google search results. When a user enters a search query on Google that matches a topic, a listing of subtopics that have tagged content available appears above normal search results. Clicking on one of these subtopics then displays a listing of search results relating to that subtopic - with tagged content appearing at the top of the list.
Users can "subscribe" to search results from sites using Google Co-op XML tags. Results from these sites appear above Google's normal search results and below the topic map when that site's content matches a topic. Users "subscribe" to sites much in the same way that they would subscribe to an XML weblog feed, except that you subscribe to links instead of to delivered content; click once on a publisher's icon in a directory that Google provides and you're done. While weak in its current form due to the very limited number of sites available for subscription (do I really care what Digg has to say about cancer? Maybe...). It's also possible to create subscription links to not only typical keywords but also very specific types of queries. For example, the technical documentation outlines how you can set up matches to queries such as "speed limit info for [place name]."
Google Co-op has the potential to be an extremely powerful tool for publishers - especially those providing premium content. It addresses the issue of what content people really want to see from professional publishers willing to support tagging versus "all the web" results fairly neatly. The subscription features in particular hold great potential. User-driven premium content aggregation has come to town, it appears, in a design that drives audiences to publishers' sites directly as well as to subscription databases.
There are just a handful of topics defined so far, one of them being "Health," which Janice McCallum discusses on this weblog in an earlier entry. As Janice notes Google Co-op is a way to encourage publishers to tag their content so that it will map to key topics effectively. The key thing to bear in mind is that this will be have to be true for ALL publishers rather quickly. As topics get built out over time more and more tagged content will push untagged content down the stack of search results for specific topics selected from topic maps. Normal search results will not be impacted in the short run - tags only relate to the topics when selected - but you can expect content with this valuable metadata to be factored into organic search engine results over time.
In the meantime Google has managed to come up with an innovative approach to categorized search that compels publishers of all stripes to provide highly visible and usable metadata for their online content. In a sense Google Co-op is like an inside-out Google Base: rather than try to get publishers to deposit and categorize content in a place that may not offer its most valuable context Google instead has allowed content to stay in at home on the servers where publishers can manage its value most effectively. There are a number of rough edges to this new feature, as usual, but in sum has the potential to take the relationship between publishers, users and Web search engines to a whole new level of service. It also has strong implications for the enterprise search environment as well, as these same tags could be used in time to integrate internal and external content more effectively via Google Desktop-initiated searches.
Just another day down at the Googleplex, though a very exciting one at that.