After a flurry of rumors, leaks, pandemonium and blog-driven mayhem, Google has finally confessed its plans to offer Google Wallet.
Google Wallet will be a system that lets you pay for things over the Internet. It’s a lot like PayPal; indeed, the pundits have gone back and forth over how and to what degree the two payment systems will compete. For what it’s worth, Google CEO Eric Schmidt has announced that Google “do[es] not intend to offer a person-to-person, stored-value payments system” — meaning that Google probably isn’t getting into the eBay business, or the Craigslist business, at all. At least not for now.
But what Google does plan to do with its payment service — and how the service will affect the SERPs, the search marketplace and the nature of the search industry — are items that Google seems unwilling to discuss just yet. For now, Google Wallet is buried deep in the bottom of Google’s back pocket.
Which is why we’ve decided to use this week’s column to speculate a bit about what might be in store, where this might be going, and where Google thinks it belongs on the Internet, anyway.
Google Wallet in the SERPs. Even if site users only use Google Wallet at shopping cart checkouts, it still could have a major impact at a far earlier stage of the game: the SERPs themselves.
That’s because an easy way to make the Google Wallet system popular is by giving preferential treatment to the marketers who use it. Which might mean offering SEM advantages; it might even mean giving them SEO benefits (and, no, that’s not as crazy as it sounds).
In terms of SEM, sponsored listings could present a little note that says “accepts Google Wallet,” or an icon like a green dollar sign that would mean the same thing. For searchers who already have an account with Google Wallet, this could be quite attractive. Even searchers without a Wallet account would be that much more likely to notice an icon-laden ad on the otherwise simple, nearly iconless Google SERP. In other words, Google Wallet could be offered to advertisers as an attention-getter.
There could be SEM advantages behind the scenes, also. Google could offer PPC discounts to advertisers who use Google Wallet on their sites. Google could even use Google Wallet as a factor in its SEM rankings algorithm — say, as a way to break any SEM rankings tie.
You could go even further with this line of thinking, and talk about Google Wallet as an SEO factor. Froogle, for instance, could present two different options below its searchbar: “show me sites with Google Wallet,” and a second option of “show all results from the whole Web.” The concept wouldn’t be so different from the current Google Personalized (beta), which allows you the choice of looking at the organic results that everyone sees, or ones that are based on preferences you’ve told Google about in advance.
Google Wallet and branding. People like Google. On the one hand, it’s remarkably good at what it does as a search engine. On the other, its entire branding position is based around a reputation of being humble and fun — despite having become the megagiant of the Search world.
While privacy advocates’ protestations against PPC ads alongside your most private e-mail messages may have demolished another e-mail service, Gmail is enormously popular. That’s a tremendous testimony to how comfortable people are with the Google brand. And it bodes well for the amount of faith people will be willing to put into Google as a payment service.
It also bodes well for sites that use Google to collect payment — because Google’s branding could make online shoppers that much more relaxed about the dangers of online shopping. In other words, the faith that the general public has in Google stands to boost the faith the same public might develop in a lot of Web sites that use Google to collect payment.
Of course, that faith is a two-way street. Just as click fraud threatens Google’s reputation amongst online marketers, and black hat SEO threatens its reputation amongst searchers, bad experiences with Google Wallet could seriously hurt the entire Google name. So Google Wallet, maybe more than any other Google product, could be a major risk.
Of course, this assumes that Google Wallet will actually be PayPal, version two. That may or may not be the case.
Join the club. In his latest installment of his column for ClickZ, our colleague Kevin Lee argued that, rather than being focused on shopping carts, the big news from Google Wallet could come from an entirely different source: pay-per-view Google Search content.
After all, Yahoo already has a subscription search service that lets you search subscription-only content from any of seven sources. If you happen to have a subscription to those sources, it’s a neat site-search feature. But when you click on the link from any one of those sources that you don’t have a subscription to, all you see is a “sorry, this page for subscription members only” page.
Google Wallet, Kevin argues, would allow for an option to see paid-only content once, for a price that Google could split with the displaying site itself. (He also suggests that maybe Yahoo has something up its sleeve with the Subscription service, too).
It’s a fascinating approach to what Google can do with the service. It also might be part of a larger trend at Google — that of the two-tiered Google system: a free Google, and a pay-only Google.
Pay-per-view content is one example. Google Answers, in which human researchers for Google will answer questions for a fee, is another. That’s already well under way; questions start at $2.50, but many of them go for $10, and sometimes $100. Another free space on Google that’s ripe for offering paid services is Gmail — which could, for instance, offer pay-only video chat.
Which would mean, of course, that aside from two types of service, Google would have two sources of income — advertisements and direct payment. How much the different Google elements get integrated and/or work similarly, and how much they evolve into very separate Google worlds, will determine where SEM firms will want to approach a double-sided Google down the line.
Search engines: Not just for SERPs anymore. Let’s go back to the beginning of Search (a game we’re very fond of in this column). Back then, SEs were SEs, and Web sites were Web sites, and never the twain did meet. Why should they have? The search engine was your portal into the Web; once you got onto the Web, you didn’t really need a portal anymore.
Later, with the increasing number of sites that both offered Google, and/or Google site-search, on their own sites, that distinction changed. Google on other Web sites brought Google out of the domain of SERPs. Contextual advertising pushed the boundaries even more between where Google.com ended and where the rest of the Web began.
If Google Wallet ends up exclusively as a way to see pay-per-view content, the Google/rest of the Internet divide will still stay largely intact. But if it ends up as a major PayPal competitor, that effectively means that Google has gone far beyond the SERPs, and onto the shopping cart checkout — which is, arguably, the heart of any e-commerce site. Far from being a separate entity that helps you interact with the Internet, Google would try to become one of the most central elements of the Web.
That’s a big leap — from the gatekeeper to the heart of it all. Not that it would be a surprising leap for a giant like Google; it would just be a large one. But if it works out well, it could a lucrative one, too, and change the nature of one of the biggest Internet companies around while it’s at it.