Google Blogoscoped

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Google Interiors - The Day My House Became Searchable

Sandra Niehaus works as web design consultant and usability analyst for Closed Loop Marketing in Roseville, CA, focusing on conversion enhancement and search engine optimization. When not living on the web she writes music, surfs, and practices martial arts.

It was 8:23 am on a typical work day in May, 2007. I was about to brush my teeth and head out to work when there was a sharp, authoritative knock on my front door. Simultaneously a sudden fluttering roar began overhead, like a giant, vengeful hummingbird was hovering above the roof.

My dog Jamaica, who usually barks only at cats and other dogs, leaped up from her bed and raced to the door, yelping.

“Jamaica, what the heck is it?” I called. She was barking as if an entire dog show had shown up on our doorstep. I put down my toothbrush, hurried down the hall to the entryway, and looked through the front window.

Parked at the curb in front of my house was a tricked-out white van, gleaming in the sun. On its side was the multi-colored Google logo, positioned so the O’s cleverly circled two side windows. Multiple camera lenses glinted from eye-level mounts positioned around the van. Milling around on the sidewalk were several neighbors who stared wide-eyed at the van and tried to keep their pleading kids from running over to it.

And at my front door stood an oddly dressed young man with a piercing through his lower lip and a strange mechanical hat on his head. He held what looked like a long golf club in one hand. Emblazoned across his narrow chest was the Google logo, with the words “Interiors - beta” printed in smaller type below it. Next to him, dressed in a dark blue suit and holding a clipboard stood a blonde woman with a severe haircut.

As I gazed at the couple, the blonde leaned forward and rapped on my door again. Loudly. Couldn’t she find the doorbell? I wondered to myself, just a little giddy from the strangeness of it all. The couple didn’t look dangerous, and besides there were plenty of witnesses out on the sidewalk, so I unlocked the door and opened it.

“Yes? Can I help you?” I could hear the giant hummingbird sound more clearly now that the door was open, and identified it as a helicopter.

“Ms. Niehaus?” asked the blonde, consulting her clipboard. “Are you Sandra Niehaus?”

“Well... yes, I guess I am. What’s going on?” A movement in the sky caught my eye, and I saw the helicopter move from over my house to hover above the house next door. It, too, was white, sleek in a corporate bird-of-prey sort of way, and decorated with the Google logo.

“I’m Dierdre Martin and this is George.” She didn’t fill in George’s last name, but they both held out their hands and I shook them. I realized with a shock that George’s hat was a dense cluster of tiny cameras, forming a rounded beehive of angled, glittering eyes. “We’re from Google Interiors, a new venture sponsored by Google to make every home interior in the world searchable on the internet.” She paused and took in my doubtless stunned expression. “You know, Google, the internet search engine?” she clarified helpfully.

“Uh, yes, of course I know about Google,” I said. “In fact, I work in the search industry.” That seemed to wake up George, who’d been standing quietly during the interchange.

“Hey,” he exclaimed, “that’s great!” He treated me to a brilliant grin. “Then you know all about how important it is to make information available and searchable for everyone!” He did an excited little jig on his heels, which made his beehive hat shift ever so slightly to the right.

Dierdre glared at him. “Better strap that thing down, George,” she hissed. “We don’t want a repeat of the Hasselford incident, do we?”

The smile disappeared. “No, no, no, of course not,” George muttered. He reached up and made some adjustments to a complicated set of straps around his ears and under his chin, straightening the beehive hat.

“So!” Dierdre turned her own smile on me. I blinked and stepped back a pace. “Ms. Niehaus if you’d just sign this agreement we’ll go ahead and index your interior and be on our way.”

I blinked again. “You, uh, want to do what, exactly?” Off to the right, I saw the helicopter shift to hover one house further down the street.

“Oh, we’re going to scan and index the interior of your house,” said Diredre, “so it’s available to anyone who’d like to see it!” Said with just a wee bit of impatience.

“Uh... but it’s a mess, and... besides, I don’t really want just anyone to be able to see the inside of my house.” I shook my head several times, and threw up my arms. “Why would I want that? That’s just crazy! This is crazy! What about my privacy? What about my rights? Don’t I have the right not to have my house searched?” I let my arms drop slappingly to my sides.

“There, there, Ms. Niehaus,” said Dierdre, “you haven’t read the paper.”

“So what?”

“Well, if you’d read the paper you’d know all of the amazing benefits you’ll receive by having your house indexed.”

I made my best, most disdainful scoffing noise. “Benefits? You’ve got to be kidding. Like what, exactly?”

“Well, for instance, if you look right here you’ll see how Google offers a mashup of services to enhance the lives of Interiors participants.” She glanced up at me. “Uh, you do know what a mashup is, don’t you?”

I flipped my hand at the paper. “Yes, of course. You were saying, about the benefits?”

“Yes, well. So Google gives Interiors participants free access to valuable services like Google Handyman, which puts you in touch with free fixit support from professional contractors; Google Design, which brings you expert decoration suggestions from top interior designers, tailored to your particular preferences and home; Google Garagesale, which connects you with people who’d like to buy items they see in your house, and Google Yards, a tool that recommends plants and yard layouts based on your soil type, micro-climate, and usage patterns.”

I held up a finger. “Wait. That sounds kind of interesting, but what about security? I can’t have a bunch of strangers seeing what I have inside my house, that’d be a perfect tool for thieves.”

Dierdre smiled. “That’s why we include Google Defense in the services mashup, Ms. Niehaus. Google recently bought Blackwater USA – didn’t you hear? – and if I may say so you’d be crazy to pass up on the protection they can offer you.”

“Uh...” I swallowed.” I guess you’re right on that one.” I glanced out to the sidewalk, where my neighbors still stood, watching. The crowd had grown, and cars were cruising slowly by. “Look, I have to admit this is all a little overwhelming. There’s a lot to take in. And what’s with the helicopter?”

“Oh, that’s our floorplan scan. We use it to help maintain the positioning accuracy of our index.” Dierdre took a breath, smiled again.

“Now, those benefits are just the beginning, Ms. Niehaus!” She brushed back a twig of hair from her forehead and leaned forward. I could smell her perfume. It smelled like ozone.

“You’ll also be able to create an online community around your house! You can post GPS-synchronized photos and videos from events, journal about your daily life, connect with like minds, get expert answers to puzzling life questions, and much, much more! And best of all, it’s all free!”

George, having recovered from his chastening, chimed in. “Not only that, but you’ll be contributing to the global store of knowledge, Ms. Niehaus! Imagine the research sociologists, anthropologists, economists, psychologists, and other scientists will be able to do with the data we collect! The trends we’ll be able to uncover! Who knows, we might discover how to prevent depression or gang activity! Google Interiors could be the beginning of significant social change for the better.”

I looked at George and his glistening beehive hat. “And all this is done purely out the goodness of Google’s heart?” I asked. “Where’s the profit? Where’s the revenue stream?”

George frowned at my words, but Dierdre leaped in before he could answer. “Oh, of course we’ll find a way to make this a revenue-producing venture, but you shouldn’t be concerned about that. It’ll be completely benign, even beneficial to you.”

“You mean like Google selling the demographics data to advertisers and product developers? Or selling data on my belongings to local retailers? Look, I already know I need a new couch – I don’t need every furniture store in the area trying to sell me one.”

Dierdre managed to look pained. “No, you could opt out of those offers if you’d like. But our partners are carefully screened to match your historical preferences, so we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at their suggestions for you.” She shifted her clipboard, turning it toward me.

“Look, Ms. Niehaus, you don’t have to do this. But many of your neighbors have already signed up, and the number of Interiors participants is growing by the hundreds every day. You don’t want to be left behind, do you?”

“Plus,” George interrupted, “this is the way society is headed – more open, more integrated and connected, with better access to all types of information. It’s the future, right here on your doorstep!” He spread his hands wide, encompassing his white, gleaming vision of tomorrow.

I admit, I was moved. Between George’s altruistic passion and Diedre’s intriguing list of benefits, I saw a new world of abundance beckoning – abundance for me, my family, my neighborhood, and indeed the planet, that shining globe of blue and white interconnectedness.

“OK, I’ll do it. Where do I sign?”

I reached out, took Dierdre’s clipboard, and stepped back, watching as Google came into my home.


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