I’ve been playing with yet another Google invention, unveiled only last week, called Google Base. Still in beta and under pretty heavy development, Google Base has the opportunity to become a bigger deal than Google Maps, Google Mail, Google News, Froogle, or any of the other Google tools that I continously (and largely unconsciously) use.
What is Google Base? Well, at its essence, it is only a list of things, each with their own sets of attributes, that I control. For the geeks in the house, it is a simple web-based database, configurable and managed via your Google account, using only a web browser. That, in and of itself, is not very exciting; lots of products allow individuals to keep collections of data objects in a manner that is useful to them. What Google Base does beyond this is what makes it so special and gives it the potential to have a huge impact on the way we find information on the Internet.
For one, it is incredibly easy to use. Historically, databases have required some technical skills to design and implement, not to mention resources to put into place so that they are useful to the people that need to store data in them and then use that data in a number of different ways. Google Base allows anyone, anywhere, to create relatively-complex and useful data structures, all without even knowing what they are doing. Are you looking to store recipes? Any grandmother than can get her own email can create a recipe list on Google Base with about as much effort to replying to an email. She gets the benefit of having her recipe anywhere, accessable with a web browser, and the world gets the benefit of knowing her recipe and having it come up as relevant search results in Google.
Most databases are comprised of tables, each comprised of columns and rows, and the tables are linked together in relational schemas that provide for complex queries to retrieve exact sub-sets of the data, useful in a variety of different ways. Amazingly, Google Base offers much the same thing. However, you won’t find instructions in Google Base for setting up tables or providing column datatype or how to create your SQL statements to get the data out of the database. Rather, while you are entering information about the thing, you also enter the attributes about the thing, all done on-the-fly, while you are creating the record. On its face, this violates some of the core concepts of traditional databasing, which requires that you plan ahead of time for how you will store everything, so that you don’t add attributes that are not relevant to the majority of the objects you wish to describe. Google Base turns this idea on its head, pushing you to just get the data in there, under the idea that we can make sense of it later, but it has to be in there to be useful to anyone. I expect Google to release an API (application program interface) soon to help application makers make it even easier to help people store their data in Google Base.
In a way, they already have. Google Base accepts flat-file, RSS (1 and 2), and Atom data feeds. This allows anyone that already has a database, as well as some basic skills about how to get data in and out of it, the ability to easily send their data for inclusion to Google Base, complete with links to the content where it actually lives on the web. This is a big deal, because it underscores exactly while Google has been so successful: they are interested in building value for everyone in what they do, and they understand that money is not the only currency.
For example, I run a little website called Terrascend, where anyone can list farms, land, hunting property, or just about any rural property for sale, anywhere in the world. I allows people to easily submit basic facts about their property, as well as photos and maps, in the hope that they will be able to reach a potential buyer. I sell some basic services to folks that want to allow their Terrascend listings to appear together on their own website, but Terrascend is basically a good free service, something I enjoy doing and can learn from. Since I started Terrascend in late-2001, I haven’t had any trouble getting people that know about the site to use it. The problem has been in letting people know what it is and that it is available for free, no strings attached. For a while, I played around with Google Ad Words and got Terrascend to show up in search results for keywords like “hunting land” and “farm for sale.” However, this quickly became too expensive to do, particularly for a site that isn’t designed to generate a lot of revenue. I’ve been wishing for years that there was a way to let people know about Terrascend and what it can do without paying for placement with search engines. And, now, thanks to Google Base, it is now becoming possible.
From Google’s perspective, they just want to get something out of the arrangement. That something might be money, as they get if you use Ad Words or their other sponsored link programs. But there is something else that is almost as valuable to them (and will help them make even more money): relevancy. Google realizes that people use its various services because the information provided is truly relevant to them and what they want. Next to having someone pay actual money to put a link to their site via keywords, Google wants actual useful data (not just links to useful data) to be returned to people using their search and other services. The more relevant the data returned, the more these people will be inclined to use Google again the next time they need to find something.
In other words, Google has allowed me the option of giving it not just money but relevant data in order to get the word out about the service I offer. As long as I offer more relevant data about what people want to find, Google will show my data in its search results and people can click through to the actual information that I want them to see. If I don’t offer relevant data, then I don’t get any benefit out of it because people don’t find it (and it doesn’t cost Google anything, since they don’t generate the data – I do).
There has been a lot of talk about alternate value systems on the Internet over the past decade. I think that we are on the cusp of a real one, and the conduit through which it flows is Google Base. I would be surprised if Yahoo and Microsoft aren’t hard at work copying this right now.