Google's 2009: A Glimpse of the Web's Next Decade

December 29th, 2009 | by Jennifer Van Grove

google 2009 imageIn 2009 the web as we knew it changed dramatically. Twitter graduated to become a media darling and a mainstream communication staple. Facebook became the most significant social network of this day and age. And Google changed the way we search.

When historians look back on 2009, they’ll be forced to acknowledge Google’sGoogleGoogle role in shaping the future of how we search, how we browse, how we communicate, how enterprises store information, and how the population at large has adapted to a web-rich mobile environment centered around applications.

Here’s a look back at Google’s big releases, major accomplishments, and a few faux pas in 2009.

Google in 2009: The Timeline

The Evolution of Search

Google started the year with 63.5% market share in the search space (source: comScore January 2009 data), with a commanding lead over its closest competitors Yahoo (20.5%) and Microsoft (8.3%). Facing competition from Microsoft’s overly-promoted new search entity, BingBingBing, and the recently finalized acquisition of Yahoo! Search, Google spent 2009 modifying and enhancing the search experience like never before.

We first saw slight tweaks made to the search experience in March, with support for longer queries and related searches getting a semantic makeover. Then in April, Google search became more intelligent in relation to local search results, using your IP address to display multiple results to simple queries like “food” on a map. Of course, the bigger play here is to highlight local businesses, as Google would later make a not-so-subtle move to replicate YelpYelpYelp with Place Pages and encourage vendors to display decals with QR codes.

Google also made efforts to improve search filtering options with the addition of time-based search options. They also experimented with the look of their iconic homepage, extending the search box, testing a permanent search sidebar, and switching to a fade-in homepage.

The social possibilities of search results became apparent when Google Profiles were added to search results for people queries. While insignificant when compared against the future release of Google Social Search, this was a carefully crafted maneuver to encourage Googlers to complete their profiles for more search relevance. Identity in search came full circle when the Google LabsGoogle LabsGoogle Labs experiment, Social Search, added relevant results based on content shared by friends associated with the social networks in your Google Profile.

Google Music Search made its debut late in October and offered up yet another new addition to the search experience: streaming audio previews for artist, album, song, and lyric searches powered by MySpaceMySpaceMySpace and Lala. The deal has major implications and could disrupt iTunes digital music market share, position Google as this generation’s billboard, and even make MySpace relevant again.

Of course, the search experience has forever been altered with the addition of real-time search. The initial announcement was made immediately after Bing touted their TwitterTwitterTwitter integration in October, but the rollout didn’t arrive until early December. We were all blown away by the fact that search results automatically update with fresh content from Twitter, Facebook Pages, MySpace, Yahoo! Answers and news articles in a real-time box on standard search results pages.

Though Google only made marginal gains in the search sector this year, finishing November with 65.6% share to Yahoo’s 17.5% and Microsoft’s 10.3, what’s important is that they continue to have a commanding lead and are clearly focused on improving the search experience into 2010, especially as it pertains to speed.

The Maturation of Gmail

After five years bearing the “Beta” tag, GmailGmailGmail has finally shed its adolescent label. The move, though mostly symbolic, was accompanied by big improvements to the web-based e-mail service throughout the year. New additions worthy of mention include send and archive, offline support, undo, Google translate, and duplicate contact merging.

Unfortunately removing the Beta tag did not guarantee up-time, as Gmail suffered several debilitating outages over the course of the year, casting doubt on the notion that cloud-based apps have become more reliable.

Going Google for Business

Google spent much of 2009 attempting to attract enterprise customers for the Google Apps suite of products. The company even went so far as to place billboards in New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, targeting IT professionals and encouraging them to make the switch.

The campaign ultimately proved successful with two notable new customers: the City of Los Angeles and the US Government. The LA deal was announced in October, completed in December, and included a $7.2 million price tag. As for the US Government, they officially started pushing agencies to switch to Google Apps in September, with the White House launching to serve as a directory of cloud-based IT services.

Google Goes on a Spending Spree

To say that Google whipped out their credit card this year is quite the understatement. The search giant focused on acquisitions and investments to not only enhance their bread-and-butter search offering but to also solidify themselves as leaders in other territories.

The spending spree didn’t start until August of 2009, but once Google purchased On2 Technologies, a video compression company, for $106.5 million, they just kept on spending. The following month they acquired reCAPTCHA to apply the technology to improve Google Books. That purchase was followed by the yet-to-be-finalized AdMob acquisition for $750 million. The mobile ad network represents a huge opportunity for Google in the mobile advertising arena, but the deal is facing scrutiny from the FTC and consumer advocate groups who see the deal as anti-competitive in nature.

Most recently we’ve seen Google snatch up Teracent and AppJet. The later was primarily a talent acquisition, with plans to transition the engineers of EtherPadEtherPadEtherPad, a collaborative word processor, to Google’s Wave product development team. The former was motivated by Teracent’s impressive technology around targeted display advertising. Teracent can optimize ads in real-time to match a visitor’s location, language, and even adapt to the content on a website.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Google did not acquire Twitter this year. The two companies have developed a synergy around real-time search, with Bloomberg speculating that that the Twitter deal cost Google $15 million.

Chrome Blossoms

September was the one year anniversary of Google’s Chrome browser. Introduced in 2008, the browser began with a big name but lackluster feature set. All that changed in 2009, as incremental updates helped make ChromeChromeChrome competitive with FirefoxFirefoxFirefox and SafariSafariSafari.

Chrome version 3 introduced support for HTML5, promised a much faster experience, themes, and an enhanced Chrome Tab page. In December, Mac and Linux users were finally gifted with their own version of Chrome, though the newly released Chrome Extensions Beta is still Windows-only.

Perhaps even more significant than the improvements to Chrome, the browser, was the announcement that Google had also turned Chrome into an operating system.

Google Chrome OS is based off of the browser, open source, and slated to run on netbooks in 2010. In November, we were able to get up close and personal — thanks to new photos and video provided by Google — with Chrome, the 100% web-based operating system. We also learned that the browser is the OS, security is a priority, all apps are web apps, Chrome only works on netbooks, and it boots in seconds.

Mobile Maneuvers

AndroidAndroidAndroid skyrocketed to mobile operating system fame this year, with dozens of devices toting Google on the inside in the hopes of competing with Apple’s iPhone. While the OS currently only accounts for 3.5% of the whole market, it’s fast gaining ground and becoming a recognizable platform among consumers.

The king of all Android phones was none other than the heavily advertised — and TIME’s gadget of the year — Motorola Droid. And while sales have been impressive, rumors of Google’s own phone, the Nexus One, surfaced just a few weeks later.

The HTC device most certainly exists, and reports assert it will be sold by Google, with support from T-Mobile, as soon as January 5th. A real Google phone is bound to resonate with consumers, but the device could also splinter the Android market, creating angst between Google and manufactures and carriers selling Android-powered devices.

Wave Goodbye to 2009, Hello to the Future

A post on Google in 2009 would not be complete without paying proper attention to Google’s newest game-changing product: Google WaveGoogle WaveGoogle Wave. The May announcement brought instant fanfare from the entire blogosphere, creating an immediate demand for a product that only a small group of individuals had ever seen. As the September rollout date fast-approached, hype and anticipation hit an all time high. But as more and more individuals started receiving their invitations (that number is now upwards of one million), anticipation was met with confusion.

While we’ve already seen the platform used for spectacular and inspiring real-time collaboration purposes, the average person still struggles with how best to leverage the new communication medium. Of course it didn’t help that Wave was — and still is — every bit a preview version not ready for prime time. Some initial flaws, like the absence of undo, have since been corrected, but as it stands, Google Wave is a product with potential that is only being realized by a small minority.