Google Talk Pays for Itself

Sorry, dear marketer, media buyer, or Google shareholder. Google
Talk is entirely non-commercial. It’s merely an extension of an older,
purer vision for the Internet; one focused entirely on communication.
It’s all talk, no revenue-generating action.

And if you buy that, I’ve got a few billion Pets.com options I’d like to sell you.   

Google Talk is merely a few steps removed from the current revenue
opportunities. You just have to look a little harder to see what they
are. The heart of it is registered users. Google wants a body count in
a hurry.

Take this two-second survey. What’s more valuable to you: two eyeballs or one registered user?   

I couldn’t agree more.   

Google is quiet about the latest Gmail user totals; reports tend to mention vague numbers, such as “several million” in an International Herald Tribune
article. Though unique users and registered users are far from
perfectly correlated, SmartMoney.com cites comScore numbers for
comparative purposes that show in June, Gmail had 4.9 million unique
users compared to 42.8 million for Hotmail (down from 48.1 million in
June 2004) and 64.3 million for Yahoo! Mail (up from 59.4 million a
year ago). If I’m a Gmail exec, I’ll be gunning for 40 million for
starters and then category dominance. You can sense some of that Jack
Welch and Steve Ballmer fire spreading through Google. With all its
success, can you see it settling for being No. 2 in anything?

Registered users are an increasingly precious commodity now, and it’s
one area where Yahoo! has a flying head start. Consider this in light
of the ongoing cookie debates, which will get louder before they die
down. What if Ross Wolfson in Newton, Mass. deleted his cookies? Yahoo!
doesn’t care. He signed in to Yahoo! Mail three times today and he has
provided Yahoo! with troves of data on him. He filled out even more
information when he signed up for a wine tasting discussion list in
Yahoo! Groups and joined a fantasy baseball league in Yahoo! Sports
(Ross, I told you not to pick Carlos Beltran). Ask Terry Semel, and
he’ll say, “Cookie, shmookie. See how many of our properties he went to
as a registered user? We can even do behavioral targeting.”

Google doesn’t know anything about Ross because he doesn’t use Gmail
and he never bothered with personalized search or anything in Google
Labs. I never invited Ross to Gmail, knowing he just wouldn’t bother.
The barrier to switching e-mail addresses is set pretty high, given
that not only do you have to tell everyone you know about your new
name, but you need to either constantly check two addresses or transfer
all the e-mails you wanted to save. This explains why there are still
40 million Hotmail users.

Changing instant messaging names has its hassles, but it’s nowhere near
as difficult. If your PC is new enough to run Windows XP (as opposed to
the ill-fated Windows ME on my home system), having a number of IM
programs running isn’t too taxing. Google also has a clever marketing
hook, straight out of the Al Ries and Jack Trout playbook, stressing
the talk over the type.

While you can talk on AOL Instant Messenger, it still has that
walkie-talkie feel to it. Yahoo! only recently promoted the feature and
Skype remains more popular overseas than in the United States. That
means the differentiator is up for grabs in the mass market here and
Google can claim it. As for Google Talk’s scaled-down interface, most
still underestimate how much usability played a role in Google’s rise
to prominence.

Mark Naples touched on this in his Friday Online Spin, “When Is Arrogance Good?” recalling
how Google built its following before running paid search ads: “Why did
we use it? Because it was a better search engine which delivered better
results in a simple, elegant interface. Google built a tremendous brand
well before they monetized it. Of course, this was done by design.”
Note the last word, chosen intentionally (and you can just picture
Naples giggling as he wrote it).

And where’s the connection to search?    

This is where the conspiracy theorists of yore will start to sound like
the soothsayers. Once you’re registered for one service, the barrier to
register for another is minimal. As a Gmail user, I didn’t think twice
about trying the personalized home page, Google Desktop 2, and Google
Talk. All of this keeps me in a Google bubble. (To be fair, I try out
these features from all the engines and portals, but I’m speaking on
behalf of Joe and Jane Consumer here.) That means it keeps getting
easier to search on Google – another barrier lifted. This gives
Google’s advertisers more keyword inventory. And that’s just step one.

Steps two through 50 involve ad targeting, starting with demographics
and then going by search history and then graduating to behavior and,
one day, Google discovers it’s so darn smart it just starts telling you
what you’re looking for before you even search. It becomes your
personal valet.

“Ross, we reserved a pair of Ben Folds concert tickets for you and
Karen, you might want to move up your home-buying plans given today’s
mortgage rates, and Target has a sale on detergent. Just thought you
should know.”

I remember a butler who once had such a vision, but Google’s making the
more aggressive push to get to know its users. Just what can it do with
those relationships?

It’s all about relationships. Time equals money and relationships equal Fort Knox.   

Oh, tell me the one about Google not monetizing its IM service again? That’s a good one.