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Google is arguably one of the most innovative companies of our time. A big part of that is that, despite the fact that the vast majority of its revenue comes from a single revenue stream (online advertising), the company has been eager to experiment with new ideas not necessarily related to search.
One of the primary ways it has conducted its experiments in public has been through Google Labs, "a playground where our more adventurous users can play around with prototypes of some of our wild and crazy ideas and offer feedback directly to the engineers who developed them."
Earlier this month, Google announced that it is phasing out Google Labs. In a blog post, Bill Coughran, Google's Senior Vice President for Research and Systems Infrastructures, explained "While we’ve learned a huge amount by launching very early prototypes in Labs, we believe that greater focus is crucial if we’re to make the most of the extraordinary opportunities ahead."
But the Google approach to experimentation isn't dead. Case in point: yesterday, the New York Times officially launched its take on the Google Labs model.
Beta620, named after the newspaper's street address, is "a public beta testing site where web surfers can experiment with new products that could eventually take root on NYTimes.com." Some of these products include TimesInstant, which provides Google Instant-like search for nytimes.com, and The Buzz, which tracks social media buzz around Times articles.
Unlike Google Labs, which was filled with a hodgepodge of projects that were, at worst, remotely related to Google's revenue-generating businesses, AdAge notes that The New York Times believes Beta620 won't share the same fate as Google Labs because "because the projects being tried there bear on its core digital product." The true success of Beta620, of course, will be determined by how much the Times learns from Beta620 users and what of value, if anything, it eventually incorporates into nytimes.com.
Long-term effects notwithstanding, The New York Times' adoption of the approach pioneered by Google serves as a good case study for other businesses that are active online. Determining which features to develop and which features to add to an existing product or service can be extremely difficult. In some cases, creating an online 'lab' where experiments are beta'd may provide the best balance between opening your ideas and innovations to a broader community and not modifying your core products and services too fast or too soon.