Here's a riddle of sorts: When is a patent application like a press release? Answer: When you're Google and you've literally got hundreds of bloggers poring over your patent filings and other public records for any hint of strategy or new services. Now comes a patent application for "Google Automat."
As an aside, an "Automat" is: "a trademark used for automated restaurant services in which food is dispensed from vending machines." The metaphor is self-service.
Automat is the apparent content entry point for "sellers" as a corollary to the broader Google Base, into which one can apparently enter anything and everything, including commercial/classifieds listings.
This shot on Flickr (presumably from the patent application), indicates that Google owns "classifieds.google.com." This suggests a few things to me.
I had previously said that if Google simply integrates listings from Google Base into search results, whether paid or organic, the company won't generate a user experience that creates an effective classifieds marketplace. Google would do better to create a distinct "marketplace," which could be browsed and searched and which would create a user expectation about what was there to be purchased, etc.
The separate domain suggests to me that there will be a "vertical" classifieds experience somewhere on Google. I think that's the right approach for the company to take (notwithstanding its ambivalence about verticals).
In addition, the image shows that the listing appears in the paid results. That indicates the following hypothetical user experience: I search for something, say a digital camera as in the example, and I see a link to Google classifieds. I might then be sent directly to the listing itself or perhaps to a page of camera listings, etc.
The implications for the newspapers are obvious (but Google is a latecomer to this business). But there are also potential implications for eBay that are also fairly obvious. Depending on how disgruntled eBay sellers are, they may elect to test and then switch to Google Classifieds (or whatever it will be called) instead. The decision will be based on how effective Google is in generating traffic/sales for these businesses and what the associated fees are.
Automat is apparently a very simplified way to get your "items for sale" into Google Paid search results and, reportedly, doesn't require the traditional AdWords campaign setup, keyword selection, bidding or ongoing management. (My understanding is that the campaign is substantially automated [hence the name?] and can manage to a monthly budget — essentially then a flat fee.)
Again, I have to caution that most of this is speculation, and we know very little about all the moving parts here.
At AD:TECH two days ago, I was talking about the inevitable development of a simplified, direct channel for search engine marketing into the SME market. And while classifieds are commonly associated with garage sales, it's also about local real estate, auto dealers and other small-business categories, including selected categories of services.
On the Internet, the distinctions between traditional classifieds and Yellow Pages listings are no longer meaningful. That's why I told Shankar Gupta of Mediapost that I thought this sounded like a product that would potentially enable the millions of local businesses that have used search as consumers and heard about SEM to potentially adopt it in a simplified way.
Immediately the question arises: How much of the small-business marketplace is going to self-provision a campaign on Google, however simplified? There are many in the directory publishing industry who would answer, "never." While that has been true, if the right degree of pricing and product simplification comes along, within a couple of years we could see self-provisioning become a viable sales strategy for Google into the broader SME market.
There are several contingencies here, clearly, and many things must come together. But Google Base/Automat would appear to not just be about classifieds, but also about building a simplified platform for SMEs to adopt some form of paid-search advertising on the Google network.
Another thought: Google could ultimately create an uber-marketplace, combining listings from Froogle, Google Local and various classifieds. No one at Google has hinted at or suggested this to me, but I believe that this is what consumers ultimately will want — something simple, yet comprehensive that combines local listings with online shopping. For example, where can I buy the camera online and where can I buy it in a local store if I want it today? (eBay is trying to add local with its suggested uses of Skype to drive calls/leads to local offline businesses.)
I'm eager to see how this unfolds.