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Google Shaping iGoogle Into Web's Front End

The launch of gaming themes for iGoogle lets people express their personalities and interests, executive Marissa Mayer says.

Building emotional ties with users has become hugely important for Google as social networks have become centers of gravity online. Google doesn't want to have to beg or pay Facebook or MySpace for access to their audiences. So it has had to develop social networking features of its own.

At the same time, the very notion of Web sites as destinations is breaking down. Going to a specific Web site to access content is no longer necessary if content can be embedded, and ideally monetized, on any Web page. Every Web page becomes a potential distribution outlet. If other data, like friend lists, and privacy controls can be similarly syndicated, the walled-garden model that Facebook and MySpace temporarily revived will tumble back down. The rise and fall of AOL could easily be repeated.

IGoogle became significantly more important to Google in October, when it was reworked to include a canvas view, online real estate made available for developers to monetize widgets using ads. It became a platform. Looking ahead, it will offer whatever content its users choose to embed. The tricky part will be making iGoogle apps as profitable as search page advertising, but that's not an insoluble problem.

Interestingly, Google isn't getting paid for, or paying for, its iGoogle Gaming Themes, which could be described as persistent display ads on people's home pages. Google's search home page remains mostly sacrosanct, with only occasional ad links for major Google products. With iGoogle, marketing becomes murkier. The gaming companies that have partnered with Google, providing game artwork in the process, are doing it, according to a Google spokesperson, to connect with their communities through a new medium. Do images of Electronic Arts' "Spore" count as advertising when users ask for them?

If iGoogle continues to grow -- iGoogle had 8.9 million U.S. unique visitors in February, up 17% from a year ago, according to ComScore -- search could become just another service crammed into a widget. That wouldn't diminish its importance -- as long as we have information overload, search will be the universal solvent -- but it does suggest that Google's business will increasingly be describable in terms befitting a Burger King marketing campaign. Instead of "search, ads, and apps," Google might offer "information, served your way, with a side order of ads."

InformationWeek Analytics has published an independent analysis of the challenges around setting business priorities for next-gen Web applications. Download the report here (registration required).

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