Google Defines “You” on the Fly

First published November 4, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Google’s ramping up of local results last week made me realize something: our Web presence is rapidly being taken out of our immediate control. Case in point, the Place Page.

Beyond the Walled Garden…

For over a year now, I’ve been pushing a mind shift to our clients, asking them to stop thinking of their online presence in terms of a “website” and more in terms of a portfolio of digital assets; some under their control and others either completely or partially out of their control. For every entity that lives online, there is a ripple effect. At the core is our website. Spreading out, usually with lessening degrees of control, are the “rings” of our presence: portal sites and extranets, mobile apps, information or products on channel partner sites, online ads, videos, interactions in the social space, comments, reviews, references and third-party apps that may access either our data or pieces of our functional infrastructure. The sum of all this is our online presence. As such, it is incumbent on us to be aware of what that looks like, and how visitors might interact with it.

The challenge is daunting for any company that has been online for a while. Even as an individual, according to Google I “live” online and in over 10,000 separate locations. And that’s just what can be easily identified in Google’s index. I suspect the number is even higher. Today’s column will have its own ripple effect, adding to the collective total of what is “Gord Hotchkiss.” My company’s online presence is the sum of over 25,000 individual parts.

Bringing the Web to Your Neighborhood

Now, consider a tiny two- or three-person company in some small town somewhere in America. The odds are pretty good that they may not even have a website, or if they do, it may not have made much of an impact on the vast ecosystem of the Web. At least, that’s been true up to now. But Google’s Place Pages provides a prescient view of how our Web presence might be defined.

Place Pages aggregates at least some of the various pieces of a local business’ online presence. The interesting part is that these Place Pages exist even if there’s little or no input from the business owners themselves. It’s an online presence defined by an algorithm — or rather, multiple algorithms. It’s a small digital snapshot of “you” as defined by Google. Google decides which parts of “you” it exposes.

Place Pages are important in Google’s local search strategies because they solve a problem that restricted the growth of the hyper-local online market. People will only search if there’s something there to find. Google had to create a scalable on-ramp model to give local businesses an online presence. The company did it by leveraging its strength: finding and organizing information. In this case, the presence is created from the information that defines the business on the Web. It’s carrying a search results page one click further, making it specific to one company and structuring the data in a more cohesive way.

“You” on the Fly

This is interesting and important on two different levels. It shows that an online presence can be created through algorithmic aggregation alone, even in the absence of an official website. It shows how extensive our identities are online. Like it or not, we leave footprints on the digital landscape, and no one is in a better position than Google to gather those together to create online destinations on the fly. If this is true for the tiny Mom and Pop shop in Cannon Ball, N.D., it’s even truer for bigger, more established entities, whether they be organizations or individuals. Will our online selves be increasing defined by Google, with or without our input?

The other thing to ponder is that this is scalable and driven by technology. Google has an open door to aggregate and present different types of information, specific to the type of company it is. I suspect a lot of what you see in the current Place Pages is simply a placeholder for new things to come.

The creation of Web destinations on the fly is quite probably a game-changer for Google.  It’s a natural extension of the company’s mission, organizing the world’s information. It provides a new outlet for something that Google has been doing for well over a decade now: gathering together the ripples that define us online.

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