Google Gets E-Mail

Search player Google is getting into the email game. The company is testing Gmail, a free, ad-supported Web-based email service that leverages the company’s dominance in search.

The move pits Google even more strongly against Yahoo and Microsoft, both of which offer extremely popular free email services. It also more firmly establishes Google as a portal, rather than simply a search destination.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company says a “handful” of users are currently testing the Webmail service, built on the idea that email should be easy to search and store. Gmail organizes messages by “conversations” that show messages in the context of the replies sent in response to them, the company said. Google is also boasting about the spam-fighting capabilities of the service, and the unprecedented storage capacity of 1 gigabyte. A formal release date hasn’t yet been set.

“We’re trying to fundamentally change the way people use mail,” said Jonathan Rosenberg, vice president of products at Google. Rosenberg explained the company wants to free people from the need to file email or deciding what should be deleted and what should be kept. To do that, he said, “you have to marry search with a very, very deep storage level.”

Google intends to include contextually targeted advertising within the Web email client, a move likely to raise privacy concerns. To target ads, Google’s technology will scan the text of the email, map the content to a keyword, and serve an AdWords ad accordingly. The technique is similar to what Google uses for its AdSense program, which distributes ads to publisher sites.

Anticipating concerns, Google assures users computers, not humans, analyze email content to determine what ads to serve.

“No human reads your mail to target ads or other information without your consent. We do not keep a record of either the specific ads you clicked on or related Web pages that you view. We do log non-personal, aggregated data about how which ads and how many ads are displayed and clicked on in Gmail,” reads the service’s privacy policy.

Rosenberg anticipates a little initial resistance, but eventual acceptance. “Much like many technologies today, if we deliver something that’s useful to the user, I think that users will become accustomed to it,” he said.

Google’s announcement of the debut of Gmail — though not yet available to the general public — comes as the company prepares for a hotly anticipated initial public stock offering. The company has been in the spotlight lately, with its founders on the cover of Newsweek and articles appearing in mainstream publications and on a variety of television news programs. Meanwhile, competitors like Yahoo and Microsoft have been anything but quiet themselves, boasting of plans in the search space and unveiling their own technologies.

Developing an email product is something of a new path for Google, which has largely depended on search-centric offerings. But, as the company acknowledges, email is the most popular activity on the Internet, and offering free email is a step toward cementing consumer loyalty. That’s because users will be spending plenty of time on a Google site, given there is currently no POP access or forwarding features. Still, an FAQ says, “In the future you will be able to access Gmail messages from non-Gmail accounts for free or at a nominal fee.”

The new service is also an opportunity for Google to begin to collect user information, a step seen as important if the company is to capitalize more directly upon its relationship with consumers.

Interestingly, the service’s official launch will likely thrust Google into an important role in the battle against spam, if it proves as popular with consumers as other Google services. The company says it has developed a spam filter and a “report spam” function on the interface. It will also need to police its servers to ensure they aren’t abused by spammers, as well as combat efforts to spoof its domain.

While avoiding specifics, Rosenberg pledged to participate in industry-wide efforts to deal with the spam problem.

Google says the email product was developed by one of its employees who thought email was a worthy project. Google requires its engineers spend 20 percent of their time pursuing ideas that interest them.

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