Conspiracy theorists who worry that Google is really just a beta-test version of the all-knowing Matrix now have more to fret about.
The Mountain View, Calif., company's new, free Google Base site -- launched yesterday with minimal fanfare, like most of its initiatives -- is just a big, Web-connected database. Unless, that is, it also turns out to cause the extinction of classified and help-wanted ads, eBay, Match.com and a great many other online and offline properties, up to and including the newspaper you're reading.
In essence, this searchable storehouse of user-contributed material reverses the usual order of things in the Googleverse. Instead of people putting up Web pages, then quivering in anticipation until Google spots and searches them, Google Base allows anyone to type information right into Google's computers -- then tell Google what search queries should locate that content.
As a frequently-asked-questions file states, Google Base can host "All types of online and offline information and images" (aside from such Google-banned advertising subjects as drugs, bombs and hookers). But Google has more specific uses in mind, and went to the trouble of creating a set of templates to help users create these types of postings.
These dozen categories -- "Course Schedules," "Events and Activities," "Jobs," "News and Articles," "People Profiles," "Products," "Recipes," "Reference Articles," "Reviews," "Services," "Vehicles" and "Wanted Ads" -- happen to cover much of the spectrum of human beings' economic, cultural and social interaction.
For example, a hypothetical Google Base user could use this site to find a job, locate an apartment in his new city, buy a car there, get a date, learn a recipe to cook for her and pick out an interesting variety of concerts, movies and gallery openings for subsequent dates -- then, if all goes well, shop for the engagement ring, choose a wedding site and hire a coordinator to ensure the big day goes off without a hitch.
You can do these things at many other Web sites, but finding what you want at such places as Craigslist -- or the ink-on-paper classifieds that run elsewhere in this paper -- can be a time-sucking chore.
Google Base aims to prevent that paralysis-by-search with its system of tags -- the same concept used in Google's Gmail e-mail service and the Flickr photo-sharing hub owned by Yahoo Inc. Tags are a bottom-up form of organization: Instead of having editors read through submissions, then file each in its own category, contributors do this work themselves. They're free to pick goofy or random tags -- but if they do, their work will probably go ignored.
Google Base's rules strive to make this process as efficient and honest as possible. For example, you can't apply more than 10 tags to a posting, grab attention with an all-capital letters heading or even use superlatives in your description. (If you want to market your work in those ways, you can always buy a Google ad.) Users can also flag phony or fraudulent postings with a "report bad item" link.
These Utopian ground rules may crumble in practice; spammers and scammers will try to subvert them with their usual cockroach-like tenacity, and scanning for and deleting offending entries may overwhelm even Google's computers. Meanwhile, Google Base's competitors have their own advantages -- "eBay" is also a verb in some households.
It's not even clear what, exactly, Google wants to see happen with this site. Part of the point seems to be seeing what sort of stuff people will throw on the Web, given a chance to do it for free. But if it does take off, a couple of other things seem bound to happen.
One is a Google-run payment system; bloggers have already noted that Google Base's templates don't include PayPal among the available forms of payment.
Another is blog postings against this site's ever-increasing scope -- properly tagged to make them easy to find in Google Base.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.