At first blush, Google's new website Boutiques.com feels decidedly un-Google. It's flashy, trendy, screams money, and features all of three items that any self-respecting guy would purchase (guys, don't bother looking beyond the messenger bags; it's all you're going to get). Not surprisingly, it feels a lot more like like.com, the visual search engine that Google acquired in August. Reading just a bit between the lines, though, makes it clear that Boutiques.com is less about fashion and far more about Google's core search business.
I need a new pair of shoes. OK, I don't need the shoes - I'm self-employed and only need to see clients in person occasionally. But since my kids wear roughly the same size shoes I do (at least the three oldest ones), every time a kid needs a pair, mine seem to disappear. So as much as I really should go to Walmart and pick up yet another pair of $15 sneakers made in some wonderfully cheerful, environmentally-friendly sweatshop in China, I want a pair of Doc Martens. I haven't had a pair in about 14 years and they were the most comfortable, durable pair of shoes I ever owned.
I haven't spent $100 on a pair of shoes in, well, 14 years, but when people ask me what I want for Christmas, I've been telling them Amazon gift cards. I'll probably end up spending the gift cards on something practical like books for my son's spring semester at college, but I'm aiming for these: . Nothing too fancy or crazy, just boots that are classy enough to wear to those occasional client meetings or rare nights out with my wife, booty enough to wear when I clean the chicken coop, and comfortable enough to wear anywhere. I really want these shoes.
The point here is that I could have Googled "Doc Marten" and found plenty of retailers who would sell my friends gift cards and then sold me the Docs of my choice. Instead, it was just too easy to hit Amazon. Even I, the great Googler, didn't even bother searching. I knew that Amazon would be reasonably priced and have a great selection, not to mention enough reviews that I could decide if DM's move to primarily Asian manufacturers really did render the boots far less comfortable than the English-made boots I had in college.
This is bad news for Google, so a like.com acquisition and a foray into the multi-billion dollar online fashion retail segment is not only good business from a diversification perspective, but really good business from a keep-people-using-Google-for-everything perspective.
Boutiques.com, however, is, as Chris Dannen over at BNET notes, a "showcase of [Google's] technology." He goes on to speculate (and I agree with him) that
If Google ever does roll out a social network, it might follow the same hybridized model, using both human input (e.g., you adding a “friend”) and algorithmic input (e.g., auto-searching the Web for your old colleagues) to help users build a complete social graph. If it did this, it would have a serious advantage over Facebook, which is awfully hit-or-miss at algorithmically searching its network for people.
This is about taking search to the next level and really beginning to monetize the semantic web. At Boutiques.com, users can follow trendsetting personalities and also create a collection of items that appeal to them. This is where the Google-ness kicks in and the companies artificial intelligence engines (they like to call it machine learning, but it sounds so much more sinister to have some AI beast analyzing your fashion sense, doesn't it?) can learn your likes and dislikes and begin making appropriate recommendations.
The goal of such an approach is two-fold: help users discover new products (rather than search for products that they know they want) and improve the algorithms that will feed the next generation of search.
Any way it goes, Boutiques.com is more likely a harbinger of things to come in the land of Google rather than Google's next billion-dollar money maker. They are, after all, a search company.