Despite not releasing a major new software product in 2013, Google has had arguably its most eventful year since 2004, when the company both went public and debuted Gmail all in the same 12 months. As such, we’ve rounded up the 13 most impactful headlines that Google earned in 2013, ranked from least to most important.
Google enjoyed a bit of free publicity this fall when the press learned it was building something on a barge in San Francisco Bay, and the company remained tight-lipped for a good while as experts—and general Internet comedians and conspiracists—theorized what wild new invention the tech company was putting out to sea. Alas, once Google did break the radio silence, it was forced to admit the barge was simply a floating promotional space, effectively a mobile Google IO conference center. It’s rare that Google squanders an opportunity to wow us, but the GBarge did.
Google’s manic obsession with deprecating popular niche products in a (largely vain) effort to encourage users to rely on Google+ claimed two more victims this year, with the finally final shutdown of Google Reader and the retirement of the iGoogle widget-centric browser homepage. Veteran users were not amused, and it did nothing to drive G+ adoption.
While none of these products made major headlines in and of themselves—which should tell you what a down year it has been in the world of Google software debuts—the search giant nonetheless declared a quiet war on Spotify, Evernote and every expert blogging or vlogging network on the planet (hi, Gary Vaynerchuk). Rather than integrate with the heavies of the content creation or content curation space, Google wants to compete with them. That’s big news, even if no one is really talking about it.
In what was supposed to be a strike against YouTube’s notoriously awful comment trolls, Google required that all YouTube posters have a Google+ profile, which in turn required the disclosure of your real name. (It also, not coincidentally, tied the use of one of Google’s most popular services to one of its least.) The trolls, to say nothing of the perfectly civil pseudonymous users of YouTube, did not take lightly this perceived demolition of posting privacy, creating a host of petitions to demand a rollback. Also, the switch neither improved the quality of YouTube comments, nor encouraged G+ adoption. A total backfire.
From this day forward, any time you rate any product or service on the internet, there’s a good chance that Google will scrape that endorsement and turn it into a search ad. Put more simply, any review you submit online makes you a potential unpaid product spokesperson, complete with a photo scraped from your online social profiles. While it’s possible to opt out of shared endorsements, the service is by default opt-in. This proves two things: Google still doesn’t “get” social, and it’s on the defensive against Facebook using social targeting to eat into Google’s search advertising revenue.
If you haven’t heard of Andy Rubin, you aren’t a smartphone nerd. Famous for advocating “moonshots”—wildly ambitious technical projects that can shape whole markets—Rubin was the man who ran Google’s Android OS development up until this year, and actually made it a viable competitor to Apple’s hyper-successful iPhone ecosystem. It shocked the tech world when Rubin was replaced in that post by the comparatively less successful Sundar Pichai, who still runs the Google Chrome OS and Chrome browser product lines. The shift means that Google may be looking to merge the Chrome and Android operating systems into a single codebase. But what of Rubin? We recently found out what his next moonshot is: running Google’s robotics division, which shows just how serious Google is about getting into the world-changing hardware business.
There are places in the world that lack the technical or political infrastructure to provide high-speed Internet access to everyone, which means there are places where Google can’t do much business. To solve that, Google went deep into its mad-science bag of tricks and pulled out Project Loon, a self-consciously crazy plan to float blimp-like solar-powered Wi-Fi broadcast airships all over the planet so everyone can have free wireless internet forever. This is not an April fool’s joke; Google is actually testing these micro-blimps in two relatively remote and non-technical areas—New Zealand and eastern Kentucky—right now.
Google makes a stealth entry in the TV set top box wars by introducing an HDMI/USB dongle called Chromecast, which effectively turns any HD television or monitor into a Google-managed smart TV that supports versions of content apps like Netflix, Hulu, Pandora and HBO Go. Despite the massive failure of Google TV, Google is willing to play in the same arena as not just Roku, Boxee and Apple TV, but to a lesser extent Microsoft (with the Xbox), Sony (PlayStation) and Nintendo (Wii) who use game consoles as Trojan horses into content delivery for the TV screen. Now Google Play Music Streaming and YouTube movie rentals start to make sense.
The US Federal Trade Commission spent two years investigating whether Google’s search results unfairly favored Google’s own products. In January, Google settled with the FTC without admitting that it overtly favored its own results or that such favoritism is illegal. All the settlement decided was that, if Google competitors don’t like how their products are surfaced in Google, they can opt out of being indexed and/or site-scraped. Also, Google has to share some of its Motorola patents with those same competitors. Small price for a major victory.
Gmail is arguably the most popular webmail service in the world, so any major changes to its functionality are big news. What makes the Gmail Tabbed Interface a top-five headline is what the new feature is designed to do; de-emphasize email marketing and social network notifications amongst Google users. In other words, the two forms of marketing that actually effectively compete with Google search for cost-effective online ad dollars are now shunted out of the “primary” Gmail tab into “social” and “promotional” tabs that users are less likely to check. That’s a not-so-subtle way to defend your advertising turf.
“Hummingbird” was the first major overhaul of Google’s core search algorithm in over ten years, and while no major SEO changes have been tied to its release—SEO is usually affected by indexing updates like “Caffeine”—it was designed to be more semantically aware. That means conversational searches like those posed to Wolfram Alpha will be processed more effectively by Google, and, when paired with Google’s enhanced speech-recognition, will give Google Voice Search a more equal footing with Apple’s famous Siri. Look no further than one of the latest Nexus 7 tablet commercials for the fruits of Hummingbird on display.
Google’s first public foray into augmented reality eyewear finally left the lab this year and started appearing in the hands of “explorers” who registered for the privileges of paying $1,500 for an early Google Glass prototype. Despite the price tag, Glass took the tech community and pop culture by storm. Though Glass earned mockery on Saturday Night Live and Conan, the Glass interface has already been improved, a Glass SDK is in the wild and a second wave of explorers is on its way. When Google can push content and information into your field of view, it changes everything. Glass is going to put all of reality into play for Google to overlay with data and, more importantly, ads. Brace for impact.
When Edward Snowden disclosed evidence of rampant NSA spying on American citizens, Google was implicated as at least a tacit accomplice in the scheme. CEO Eric Schmidt walked a very careful line in denouncing the program, then was outed as having been paid to help build the PRISM system, then went ballistic when it was revealed that the NSA had gone beyond PRISM and infiltrated Google’s servers without permission. Since then, Google has formed a consortium of tech heavyweights to demand NSA reform and has moved to encrypt its own search data to prevent future government intrusions. Here’s hoping 2014 is a year where Google is lauded for thwarting NSA surveillance, rather than enabling it.
Think we missed—or misinterpreted—a major 2013 Google headline? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.