Services & Software

Google ushers Web surfers into its labs

The search service expands its research and development effort by asking its users to try out experimental technologies.

Popular search engine Google on Tuesday launched two sites for developing experimental search and browsing technologies.

The first experiment page, Google Labs, lets Google users try out technologies fresh from Google's research and development team. At launch, these experiments include a glossary, a voice-search application, keyboard shortcuts for navigating through search results, and a tool for creating sets of Web sites or other items derived from a smaller set of like items.

The second page features experimental add-ons to Google's toolbar, a software download that lets people surfing the Web with Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser search the Google database through a persistent application built into the IE interface.

"Both of the services enable Google's users to experience and provide feedback to Google's latest innovations in search technology," a Google representative said about Tuesday's launches.

Google is expanding its research and development on several fronts, including courting software developers by offering limited licenses to experiment with Web APIs (application programming interfaces) that allow programs to tap directly into its search database.

The moves come as the company is trying to find its financial footing amid fierce competition in the market for Internet search services. Widely thought to be preparing for an initial public offering, the company has been slowly cementing its position as the No. 1 search provider on the Web, with more than 3 billion documents in its database. In the last couple of years, Google's technology scored it a high-profile contract to provide backup search results for Yahoo, taking over Inktomi's position. It has also replaced paid-listing company Overture Services on EarthLink's site.

Such successes have complicated Google's place in the search world. Google's automated search service increasingly poses a direct challenge to Yahoo's handpicked directory of Web sites. According to a report from StatMarket, a division of Net research company WebSideStory, Yahoo's search market share has dropped in the past two years from 46 percent to 36 percent, while Google's has climbed from 1 percent to 32 percent. That could become a factor in whether Yahoo decides to renew its Google deal when it expires next month.

Meanwhile, Google recently revamped its keyword advertising service, drawing a patent infringement lawsuit from Overture over its method for auctioning ad positions.

Not all of the current labs projects point directly to paid services. But, like its APIs bid, they may become a catalyst to help drive Google's recent efforts to lift its revenue. For now the service relies on advertising, but it has taken steps to broaden its billing base, for example, by introducing an enterprise search device earlier this year.

"In some ways, (the labs site is) yet another marketing gambit," Chris Sherman, editor of industry newsletter Search Engine Watch, wrote in an e-mail interview. "Google users love the idea of getting a peek beneath the kimono--and I've already seen a lot of positive buzz in blogs, forums, etc. that will surely make its way into the mainstream media over the next few days and weeks."

The labs site bills itself "a playground for Google engineers and adventurous Google users."

"Google staffers with wild and crazy ideas post their prototypes on Google Labs and solicit feedback on how the technology could be used or improved," reads a Google FAQ. "None of these experiments are guaranteed to make it onto, as this is really the first phase in the development process. Google users with a desire to jump over the cutting edge are invited to check out the posted prototypes and send their comments directly to the Googlers who developed them."

A Google Labs disclaimer warns that the experiments are by definition not ready for prime time, and testers should adjust their expectations accordingly.

"Just a note," warns the disclaimer. "These technologies are still in the beginning stages of development, so they may disappear without warning or perform erratically. If something's not working on this page, please come back and try it again later."

Google's experiments stray from the territory of search. One feature called "browser control," sure to raise eyebrows about Google's ambitions and direction, lets people suppress advertising pop-up windows that appear when the browser attempts to leave a Web site. The feature works by clearing the JavaScript event "onUnload."

Asked to clarify whether this browsing feature marked a departure from Google's traditional search mission, the Google representative would only say that "it's something we're experimenting with to see if there's any level of demand or interest."

Another experimental navigation feature, albeit with a more direct connection to search, helps Google toolbar users navigate through results with a "next" and "previous" button, eliminating the need to double back to the search results page.

A third toolbar experiment is a "combined search" button, letting people search Google's image, newsgroup and general databases in combination.

In other news, Google added seven new interface languages to its toolbar, bringing the total to 20. Newly added languages are traditional and simplified Chinese, Catalan, Polish, Swedish, Russian and Rumanian. Google's Web site interface supports 74 languages.

Evan Hansen contributed to this report.