News: Google Launches New Toolbar, Musings on Meaning of Beta

Spoke with Google product chief Marissa Mayer yesterday, who told me that Google is launching its third rev of its toolbar today. It's Windows only, and it's a beta: Google is not planning to auto-update current toolbar users until the bugs are worked out. I asked Marissa what the…

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Spoke with Google product chief Marissa Mayer yesterday, who told me that Google is launching its third rev of its toolbar today. It’s Windows only, and it’s a beta: Google is not planning to auto-update current toolbar users until the bugs are worked out.

I asked Marissa what the deal was with all the beta stuff at Google. More than 75% of their offerings are in beta, some have been there more than a year. She responded that Google was getting close to lifting beta from on a number of key products – Froogle and News were two she mentioned. But that beta means different things at Google. For client software like Desktop or Toolbar, beta is used more strictly, as in, this software ain’t ready for primetime, and we want some feedback to be sure it doesn’t bork your machine, and we intend to fix bugs and get it into general release as soon as possible.

For web apps, beta means something quite different. “We have a list of features we’d like to see in a product,” Mayer told me. Once that list is complete, the beta tag is taken off, even if the product is quite robust without them. As an example, she mentioned Froogle, which was launched without a “sort by price” feature. The product was simply not complete. When Mayer and Google feels it is complete, the beta tag will disappear.

So, Toolbar, as a client side piece of software, is in beta in the more strict sense of the term. It’ll be out of beta relatively quickly, Mayer told me. The new release has three main new features:

1. SpellChecker. This feature moves Google’s “Did you mean” concept from search results to the toolbar. For any web form (ie Hotmail, or any web-based input) you can now get spell checking courtesy Google’s algorithms. Cool.

2. AutoLink.The Toolbar will not automatically make US addresses appearing on web pages into URLs which are linked to Google Maps. Again, cool.

3. WordTranslator. This nifty feature translates any English word on a page into any of 8 other languages. Mayer said this would be a sought after feature for international users who use English as a second language.

I’ve often thought about Google’s Toolbar, and I’ve heard through reasonably well connected sources that the company is not pleased with the scope of its Toolbar downloads. This release should certainly increase Google’s user base. I asked Mayer how many folks are currently using Google’s Toolbar, and she said – true to Google’s stated policy of numeric vagueness – “in the millions.”

My guess is that means “in the low millions,” and that Google would very much like it to mean “in the high millions.” (This brings up the marketing issue, which I wrote about here.) In any case, this toolbar release points to something of a new trend for Google, that of surfacing its inherent search features – spell checker, word translation, maps – into more visible and user friendly formats. Expect to see more of this going forward.

PS – Gary over at SEW speculates that perhaps this might offer a new revenue stream for Google.

7 thoughts on “News: Google Launches New Toolbar, Musings on Meaning of Beta”

  1. In essence, AutoLinks *are* Smart Tags for IE, by another name.

    Think this will generate the same hysterical misconceptions by overpossessive webmasters (and knee-jerk pundits: yes you, Davey Winer ;yes you, Walt Mossberg
    as when MS tried it? I’d guess not.

    What’s the difference?

    1. Well, MS beta’d them without any ‘bundled’ links to MS or third parties: users had to specifically choose and download their preferred suppliers. (Though those on offer from MSN included information on major companies, universities, sports teams, stock quotes, news, team rosters, and alumni pages – all optional).

    Google only bundles it’s own, and a (non-optional) tie-up with Amazon.

    2. MS declared that the API was open (complete with SDK), and that users were free to build and/or source any links they liked (and promoted dozens of such third party plugins, all optional).

    No sign of that from Google yet.

    3. MS provided a way (a meta tag) for websites to preclude their operation.

    No sign of that from Google yet.

    4. MS automatically indicated extra links on a page by a squiggly underline.

    Google makes users click a button, every page, to find out if there are links available.

    5. MS’s link menu popup offered multiple links (if available).

    Google’s link menu popup is just a fancy tooltip, with the text itself being the (single) new link.

    It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that MS had a far better implementation
    four years ago. Less evil, if you’re of the benighted mindset that visitors’ eyeballs are the property of webmasters, not to be poached by third parties (even at the behest of visitors themselves).

    Before the outpouring of mass hysteria (the first abuse of power in the blogoshere?) effectively banished them to within Office.

    Let’s hope Google’s lesser (but welcome) offering meets a better fate.


  2. Surprise, yet another underperformer from the big G. Hmmm…Search Appliance, nope; toolbar, nope…any numbers on desktop search yet?

    There’s a hypothesis I’ve been mulling over for a while. It could be wrong on a few details, but the overall idea seems increasingly valid.

    To wit, everything that makes money at Google was written before they even got funded. That is, the core search engine is what’s driving the company.

    Now, I know I’m wrong about AdSense, since it emerged sometime later, and one could argue about rewrites and various twiddles. But there’s a lesson about core competency in here somewhere.

  3. About the AutoLink feature, Walter R. Mossberg of the New York Times said it best (referring to Smart Tags), back in 2001:

    “It’s up to a site’s creators to decide how many, and which, terms to turn into links, where those links appear, and where they send users. It’s part of the editorial process.”

  4. Autolink reminds me of Kenjin, from Autonomy. If you don’t remember that, well, it sank with barely a trace.


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