NEW YORK – Google Inc. (GOOG), the search engine whose clean, minimalist home page was a stark contrast to the link-laden Web portals of the late 1990s, made a tiny tweak to its site last week that may have much bigger repercussions.
On Wednesday, Google removed a text link to its comparison-shopping site, Froogle, and replaced it with one pointing to Google Video, where amateur spoofs uploaded by users mingle with episodes of Dave Chappelle's show.
While Google explained the switch as a philosophical one — more about helping users find new video content than driving traffic to any particular section — some bloggers and Web watchers saw the change as more strategically significant.
"Froogle Dumped for Hot New Girlfriend," wrote Michael Arrington, who follows Silicon Valley on a blog called TechCrunch. His post also noted that Google has been testing a new layout for the video section. "We sure don't see this kind of product attention showered on Froogle," he wrote.
Traffic on Google's video site was eclipsed in February 2006 by YouTube, a California-based startup.
In July, about 30.5 million people visited YouTube, compared with 9.3 million to Google Video and 5.3 million to Yahoo Inc.'s (YHOO) Yahoo Video, according to data from Nielsen/NetRatings.
Now, Google, Yahoo and several television networks are scouting ways to convert the viral popularity of online videos into revenue.
For Google, giving the video section home-page play could be a start.
"You can't underestimate the power of distribution on that front page," Bill Tancer, the general manager of global research for Hitwise, an Internet research group.
Google Video snagged twice its usual share of clicks on Google properties the day of the switch, while Froogle's share declined, according to data from Hitwise.
Before the switch, about half of Google Video's traffic came from the Google home page; the day of the switch, that amount jumped to 70 percent.
Swapping the link was "not about driving traffic in any particular place," claimed Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products and user experience.
She said videos are like news stories in that users tend to browse for new and interesting content, rather than coming to the site with a specific query.
Grouping video with other "destination" areas of the site such as news and maps made philosophical sense, she said.
Froogle, which is still in beta testing, had about 6.6 million unique visitors in July. The site badly lagged Shopzilla.com, the top shopping search engine, which racked up 17.2 million visitors, and Yahoo's shopping network, which had about 11.1 million, according to data from Nielsen/NetRatings.
But Froogle's lackluster performance had no effect on the decision, Mayer said. Neither did the company's interest in turning video into a revenue stream, though she did concede that more traffic flowing to the video section would make it easier for Google to profit, eventually.
That argument didn't quite ring true for search industry watcher John Battelle.
"The fact is that YouTube is hot, video is hot, and there's a lot of money projected to be shifted from video advertising on TV to video advertising on the Web," said Battelle, a founding editor of Wired magazine and author of "The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture."
"It would be irresponsible if Google didn't set itself up to take advantage of that, and that's what they've done," he said.
Battelle said the change will help Google position itself as a logical partner for content companies — a strategy that gained momentum last week with key advertising deals with News Corp. (NWS) and Viacom Inc. (VIA-B)