There's not much Google loves more than playing in other people's sandboxes. Like a Walmart built entirely of zeros and ones, once the behemoth moves into your town, you're officially f**ked. Here's how they do it, and why it matters.
A little recap might be in order, started with Google's latest victim: the lowly travel site. Need a flight to Miami? You could check out the usual suspects, Expedia, Orbitz, Kayak, maybe even Travelocity and its creepy little gnome. Throw some info in, wait a few minutes while they gather all the airline information, and you're presented with the available flights.
It all seemed perfect until Goggle rolled up with its new Flight Search feature. In addition to the usual "let's fly from point A to point B" flight search, the service quickly, and intuitively, narrows down flight results based on number of stops, airlines, price, connections and flight times. You can even add nearby airports to your search, and drag your departure and return dates along a calendar to see which days are the cheapest to fly.
None of this is in and of itself groundbreaking. What's different is how easy Google makes it, bypassing the redundant "start new search" hassles of most established travel sites. Bar none this is the quickest and easiest way to find flight. And heaven help the travel sites Google tacks on hotel and car rental options.
Who else has felt this sting? MapQuest was the Magellan of the internet until Google Maps appeared. But then suddenly Google Map results appeared every time you searched for a business or address. And with Google Map apps being the de facto iOS and Android navigation king, it's exceedingly likely that MapQuest won't ever find its way back to number one.
Hotmail and Yahoo mail? Totally respectable providers — until Gmail. When Gmail beta launched in 2004, it offered a full 1GB of storage, compared to the paltry 2MB-4MB offered by other email services at the time. Now all a Hotmail handle's good for is a punchline.
Firefox! Everyone loved it, totally wiped the floor with Internet Explorer. And then Chrome came along, sucking up market share like a cracked out Dyson. Search? Well, search goes without saying (miss you, Alta Vista!). Hell, Google's even made itself obsolete; its YouTube purchase crushed Google Video. And once you've corned the cat video market, you control the Internet.
So Flight Search is just one in a long line of features built (or purchased) by Google to dominate a space. But why do Google tentacles keep reaching farther and farther? And how are they so good at it?
The simple truth: because Google can afford to run those businesses at break-even, or in some cases at a loss. All they care about, other than global domination, is getting people on the internet. Because if you're online, you're being served a Google ad, or providing information that goes into a Google database that helps, yep, sell more ads. Search and ad revenue make up the lion's share of Google's income. And if they suspect for a second that they can get another foothold on your internet usage, you'd better believe they're going to enter that particular dragon. And tear down whoever's in their way.
Even services that at first seem tangential are surreptitiously feeding the beast. Take the Google Fiber experiment. The company is installing a 1Gb /per sec broadband network into a community in order to bring the next generation high speed connection to the masses. How does that help Google? The faster the pipe, the more often people will be on the Internet searching for videos, games, and using their services. Google also talks about developers creating apps optimised for this ultra-fast network, so don't be surprised if some of those apps are for the Chrome Web Store.
Of course Google's giant piggy bank doesn't always yield success. The Google TV could be great if they could get a few networks on board. Wave and Buzz were verifiable busts, and even Google+ seems to be losing steam after a strong start. Android phones are flying off the shelves, but Android tablets are still in their infancy, with a long, long road ahead before they catch up to iPad in either quantity or quality.
But you know what? It doesn't matter. Maybe if Google were a set-top box company or a social network or a manufacturer. But they're not. They're an advertising agency. And every single Google+ account, every last Galaxy Tab, those two Google TVs that they sold: they're all just added value, sprinkles on top of a vast search sundae. And the more pervasive the internet becomes in our lives, the more Google will be, too. Who's their next target? Everything. Everywhere. All the time.