Google announced an upcoming free email service yesterday - as everyone knows, as "is it an April Fool's joke" debates raged all over the Internet.
The implications of the new service could be wide-reaching. It goes well beyond a 1 GB mailbox. It's natural that this has become the focal point of conversation, in contrast to the meager 2 or 4 MB that you get with other free services. The business case, of course is Google AdWords, serving text ads targeted to the text of the email that you are reading.
Once you start to look beyond those two aspects, however, it starts to become very interesting. One day, Google announced a personalized-search demo, and now email. Well, nothing is more personal than email (spam excluded). The problem with personalization system is that you have to fill out (sometimes huge) questionnaires about yourself, which few people want to do. The most successful systems, don't require this at all. Amazon is a great example. Based on the things you search for and the items you click on, Amazon starts to recommend this that you might like to to buy - heck, they even create a "Mark's Store" tab for me. Amazon builds a profile automically by tracking your actions on the system. Now imagine that a certain company knows what you are reading about (and writing) in emails. Further assume that the same company also knows the things that you are searching for, and maybe even the news that you are reading, the products that you are shopping for, and even where you are. A much broader and detailed profile could be created by compiling all this information. This could be used to serve extremely relevant, personalized search results (along with just as relevant advertising).
Taking this one step further, we can remind ourselves that email is a form of communications. It is one medium that we use to interact with other members of our social networks. By keeping track of who we are communicating via email with, a company could build a graph or that person's social network. If the same company has detailed profiles of those people, then the potential is there to combine that data for refining search results and advertising. For example, if you email contacts think a particular search result is highly relevant, it may increase in the rankings when you search. Or if your friends or colleagues are clicking on particular advertisements, perhaps you would like to see those ads as well?
While the potential is huge, it is also a little scary. When we thinking about the collection and processing of so much personal profile data, we usually think about government spy agencies, not your friendly neighborhood search engine. Like many things relating to the future of Google, privacy could become a serious concern or barrier going forward.
Just when you thought the search engine wars couldn't get any more interesting...