If you have searched for information around the Olympics online then it’s likely you will have come across Google’s new interface that contains a huge amount of information about the Games.

It is essentially a giant Olympics website containing thousands of pages that are integrated into the SERPs.

As highlighted by marketing consultant Dan Barker in his blog post, Google delivers so much information that it removes much of the reason for searchers to visit the official London 2012 site and broadcaster sites. 

According to Dan: 

It also points to the future of Google’s ‘Knowledge Graph’ project, and how this may affect other website owners.

The Knowledge Graph

Google rolled out its new Knowledge Graph earlier this year, displaying facts and figures in the right-hand column of search results.

The stated aim was to provide smarter results so users spend less time searching.

But as Barker points out, the new Olympic results contain three elements that are different to existing Knowledge Graph results:

  • A set of user interface elements specifically for the event.
  • A fully self-contained navigation structure.
  • They appear globally (whereas ‘knowledge graph’ content is largely reserved for the US).

The end result is that rather than linking to other sites, 50% of the page on any search closely related to the Olympics is now Google’s own content.

In doing this, Google has ditched valuable ad space on the right-hand side of the page and in some cases at the top of the search rankings.

The new interface, which appears on both core and long-tail search terms, presents content on as many as eight different topics, including every sport, country, individual events, athletes, world records and links to watch online depending which country you are viewing from. 

For example, here’s what happens when you search for the USA team:

How big is the experiment?

Barker suggests that Google may be trying to train users how to use the right-hand sidebar in this context. And it’s not a small number of users either according to Barker’s calculations.

The three main entry points for the Olympic interface are search for sports-related or Olympic terms and also Google Doodle’s that link to different sport pages.

Looking at stats for other Google Doodles, we can roughly estimate that across the two weeks of the Olympics the sports-related images will generate roughly 100m searches.

Then added on to that are searches for individual sports. Basketball gets 20.4m monthly searches and if we estimate that only 25% of those show the Google Olympic page, that’s still 2.5m searches over the two weeks for that sport alone (one of 36). 

Assuming that basketball is representative, that means a total of 90m searches across the 36 sports.

Finally, based on official traffic stats from LOCOG Barkers estimates that there will be around 100m specific searches for the Olympics, which means in total there will be approximately 300m searches displaying Google’s new Olympic interface.

That is potentially a huge amount of ad revenue that Google is foregoing in order to deliver its own Olympic content, but it may be worth it if it can train all those people to use its new interface.

So what does this all mean?

The reasons behind this massive experiment are unclear, but Barker suggests several possible motivations.

1. The Walled Garden

Facebook and Twitter don’t hide the fact that they are trying to create walled gardens that discourage users from ever leaving.

In recent years Google has made similar efforts to create its own self-contained web within the web, with the following being just three of many examples:

  • Pushing Microformats and author information, which allow Google to understand content and give them the context needed to redisplay it themselves in any format they choose.
  • ‘Not Provided’ referral information, whereby Google now encrypts referral data from logged in users.
  • Google+, which encourages both brands and users to create more content on Google’s own properties, rather than to try and suck visitors away from Google.

Barker suggests that Google’s intention is to encourage users to see it as a destination for information rather than a tool for finding other sites.

The Olympic interface fits with this theory as it presents freely available information within Google itself in a way that could easily be replicated for other topics.

2. Attribute based product search

As we have previously pointed out, Google has been experimenting with price comparison UIs for credit cards and flights.

Barker says that the Olympic interface could easily be repurposed for commercial products.

Just as the Olympic site lets you browse and narrow down between ‘Countries’, ‘Sports’ and ‘Medals’, it is not much of a stretch to see that this could just as easily be ‘Brands’, ‘Categories’ and ‘Products’.

3. Paid inclusion

Google Shopping recently moved from a free service to a paid model, apparently to improve the quality of data by discouraging frivolous listings.

But fitting this with the type of UI used in the Olympic ‘site’, it does two things from Google’s point of view:

  • Allows them to gather far more ‘attribute-based’, relational data from product advertisers and incentivises them to ensure its accuracy.
  • Introduces the ‘paid inclusion’ model, which means advertisers no longer bid based on keywords specifically, but based purely on their willingness to pay if a product is clicked.

In theory, the new UI would allow Google to choose how and where products are displayed and allow it to show ads that users have to ‘navigate to’ rather than ‘searching for’.

As an example of how this would benefit Google, Barker says that it could try to bring all of Amazon’s products within its own UI so users browse items without ever leaving Google.

It could then charge for each customer it sent through to Amazon’s product pages.

In conclusion

There may be any number of reasons why Google wants to create this new interface, but the safe bet is that there are commercial motivations.

One of the most compelling ideas is that the Olympic information will be replaced with product information, allowing Google to act as a product discovery tool for e-commerce sites.

To this end, the Olympics is the perfect event to test the new UI due to the huge number of users that will be exposed to it, thereby giving Google plenty of data on how people react to it.