Google Labs Brings Users into Innovation Loop


A couple of consulting companies recently advised businesses not to neglect spending on innovation when times are tough. This makes intuitive sense. Companies that slow or even halt such initiatives may find themselves at a disadvantage when flush times returm if their competitors managed to continue funneling funds into innovation.


When I wrote about it last week, though, I wondered how many companies would be able to follow this advice in the current economy. Not many, I guessed. Numbers from Boston Consulting Group seemed to confirm this, showing that an increasing number of companies, especially those headquartered in North America, were trimming their innovation budgets.


One that isn't cutting back is Google. But while it isn't neglecting innovation, it's keeping costs down by bringing in consumers early and often to help it refine its ideas for new products and services. This concept is often called open innovation or sometimes crowdsourcing.


The search giant retooled Google Labs, a site which serves as a "sandbox" for ideas developed by Google employees during their vaunted "20-percent time," rebuilding it using Google App Engine and moving it to a new home where it's more accessible to the public. Among the new and more user-friendly features, accordiing to a post on the Official Google Blog, are an RSS feed and an iGoogle gadget. According to BusinessWeek, users will be able to comment on and rate Google projects. (The ratings system has proved successful for sites such as Dell's IdeaStorm.)


The company also announced the two newest services to come out of Google Labs, which earlier spawned Google Maps and iGoogle. They are Similar Images, which helps users refine visual search results, and News Timeline, which will arrange search results for news chronologically. Other than making Google even "stickier" than it already is, giving users more reasons to linger there and (maybe) view some advertisements, there is no obvious revenue model for the services. "We haven't thought about it," R.J. Pittman, the director of product management in search properties, told BusinessWeek.


Another new feature that allows users to create profiles and display personal information on Google seems to more directly address Google's bread-and-butter business of helping advertisers better connect with consumers. While it's a way of Google "putting a human, community-driven face on itself," as search expert John Battelle tells eWEEK, it will also seemingly make it easier for advertisers to tailor their pitches. I wrote last month about some of Google's other plans for what it calls "interest-based" advertising. Users will get something in return, however, as these profiles should in theory help them better control their own online presence.