Google's "Space" Is (Mostly) Online - InformationWeek

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11/30/2005
03:03 PM
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Google's "Space" Is (Mostly) Online

It's part market research for Google, and it's a great way to jump out of the virtual world and into the real one, to become more than just the search bar on the Internet. Helping real people do research on their destination locations is a wonderful marketing technique.

Some industry watchers have been suggesting that Google Space--a concept that the company is now testing in London's Heathrow Airport to let travelers try out its various search tools and search the Internet for free--will morph into some kind of permanent physical storefront.

I disagree.The money and other resources this would require would be ridiculously high, and I've got to believe the Google powers-that-be know that. The probability of having a Google 'shop' in a town near you is extremely low, unless the company teams with an established player like Starbucks. (And personally, I believe it would be much more 'Google-like' for the company to team with independent shops, either Internet cafes or bookstores, than to link up with some huge chain. But I digress.) Still, the company is smart enough to realize that it needs to do some things to help connect with its customers in the realm of the physical world. That, and some very good market research, are at the heart of the Heathrow experiment, I believe, and to my mind this makes Google more akin to Amazon than it does to Microsoft.

Like Amazon, Google started in the virtual world and needs to be smart about how it goes 'physical.' Amazon is doing it by partnering with existing retailers like Circuit City or Toys R Us, with services like in-store pickup for items you purchase on Amazon.com. If Google does anything to open up 'storefronts,' I think it will have to be based on a similar model.

The timing is good for this sort of service, for sure. A recent study says that search has overtaken news as the second most popular reason Americans go online, right after e-mail. Of the 94 million American adults who went online on a given autumn day this year, 63% used a search engine, compared with 56% in June 2004, the Pew Internet and American Life Project said.

Google Space began operating on Thanksgiving Day, and the company chose Heathrow because, on average, Brits spend nine hours a year "waiting at airports, looking for things to do," according to Lorraine Twohill, European director of marketing programs for the company, in an e-mail interview. "We wanted to make this 'dead time' at the UK's busiest airport useful." Last year, nearly 67 million passengers traveled through Heathrow, Twohill added.

Not coincidentally, Google recently opened a U.K. office, and company execs said during the "Analyst Day" meetings in February that their next big push will be international. So here we are.

The Space sports 10 laptops--not wireless at this point--that highlight six Google tools: Earth (maps), Local (find local businesses and services), Toolbar (add a search box to your browser), Mobile (search on a cell phone), Mail, and Picasa (find, edit, and share your photos). In addition, travelers can surf the Internet at will, including picking up e-mail at any service, not just Google Mail.

So far the traffic has been pretty good. From those 10 laptops in Heathrow, visitors have logged over 130,000 hits on Google's U.K. home page, with over 10,000 unique sites visited, Twohill says. (And these numbers are already low, I'd imagine, since our e-mail interview took place a day before I wrote this.) The testing phase goes through December 19, at which point the company will analyze the data and decide what, if anything, to do from here.

"We will judge Google Space's success by the feedback we get from customers," Twohill says. A big part of the experiment is people's reactions to "the latest Google tools, making Google Space a veritable product laboratory."

That, I think, is at the heart of what's going on here. It's part market research for Google, and it's a great way to jump out of the virtual world and into the real one, to become more than just the search bar on the Internet. Helping real people do research on their destination locations is a wonderful marketing technique.

If there are future physical forays for the company, I'd be willing to bet they're part of the marketing line item and not a new-business expense.It's part market research for Google, and it's a great way to jump out of the virtual world and into the real one, to become more than just the search bar on the Internet. Helping real people do research on their destination locations is a wonderful marketing technique.

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