Get ready for Google-footing

Gmail to create new cottage industry

There are various anecdotes about how you know when you've made it. Being given drugs, restaurant tables, first-person newspaper mentions or your own dressing room are just a few. But perhaps the surest way to measure a tangible impact on society is when your name becomes part of current parlance.

Google has managed it three times and a fourth is on the way. To "Google" someone or thing is widely recognised as inputting their name in the world's leading Internet search engine and seeing what it throws out. Google-bombing is when a site (or webpage) attains a higher-than-justified ranking for a particular term of word through clever linking from other sites. Googlewhacking is when a single, solitary website is found for a particular phrase.

No one has yet come up for a good name for the monthly scramble to rewrite websites once Google updates its filters and search results are re-ordered. However, it seems certain that the company's hugely publicised new Gmail online email service will soon provide a new term, and so we venture "Google-footing", since this is a fairly accurate description of what is on the horizon and, well, it has two "o"s too.

A brief history of Gmail

Google mischeviously revealed on April Fool's Day this year that it intended to branch out from the search engine business and provide a free email service along the lines of established giants Yahoo! and Hotmail. The kick was it would provide - free of charge - a whopping 1GB of memory. "There's no need to file messages in order to find them again," the company said, and at a stroke appeared to undermine the entire free email business model, built up over a decade.

Google would fund this vast investment through the addition of targeted ads on your email. You would get and receive email for free but each would come with an ad, and of course, companies would pay dearly to be the person that popped up.

Aside from widespread concerns and complaints about privacy policies, millions are itching to get their hands on a Google email service and a select few have been allowed just this in order to beta test the system before it finally goes live at some unspecified date in the future. It is the observations of a few Internet old hands with Gmail accounts though that has raised the likelihood of a new Google-created cottage industry once the service goes live. And with it no doubt a whole slew of other troubles.

Karl plays around

Karl Auerbach is a Californian lawyer who has been intricately involved with the Internet since its very earliest days. Most famously he won a place on the board of Internet overseeing organisation the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which he later sued and won in court the right to inspect their accounts as a director of the company.

He has stumbled on an interesting facet of the new Google service. The way Gmail works is that when someone sends an email to a Gmail account, Google's machines scan the text of the email and use what they pick up as keywords with which to select an ad paid for by another company. That ad then appears in the margin of the sent email when the Gmail user opens it.

Karl doesn't like this. In fact, he sees it as "data mining my own personal knowledge and relationship with my correspondents". He gets nothing out of it and he runs the risk of "sending something that triggers an advertisement that really ticks off my correspondent on Gmail".

But one person's hassle is another's business opportunity, Karl ponders. Suppose one company pays another - actually pays it - for the priviledge of processing its outgoing email. Then it adds to text, links, graphics etc, etc, to email going to normal ISPs. However for Google email, text is added that is designed to trigger certain adverts in Gmail ads.

In this way, that company can sell to others certain words and phrases. If you pay us for this word, we will make sure it pops up in Gmail's users' email. Or even, Karl suggests, we will make sure that your competitors ads don't show up in people's emails by using a certain combination of words.

Karl doesn't like the vision he's drawn: "The net result would be yet another step along the road of transforming the once useful system e-mail into nothing but bulk advertising." However, with many companies making significant sums by offering search engine optimisation skills, is it not only a matter or time that company's spending millions on advertising spend a little more on companies that specialise in getting those ads seen?

And since Google is already helping you filter email, advertisers are already getting closer to the Holy Grail of specifically targeted advertising for the person they most want to attract.

Bret struck by irony

At the same time, Bret Fausett is also playing around with his Gmail account and has come across a slightly less useful if more amusing example of Google-footing.

Bret is also a Californian lawyer who has also been closely linked with the Internet for many years, in particular with ICANN. He runs a popular ICANN blog and specialises in Internet law.

However when he sent himself an email to his Gmail account as a test, complete with his usual law-firm footer, he was dismayed to find that it arrived with an ad for a competing law firm in Los Angeles. Certainly not ideal. But as you can imagine, exciting and horrifying at the same time.

How much would you pay to have your ad appear on emails sent from your competitor? And how much more to make sure the same didn't happen to you?

With Google's service almost guaranteed to be used extensively by millions of people soon, these ponderings will soon be solid business plans and with it Google-footing (or at least some similar term) will become another part of Net lingo. You heard it here first. ®

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