MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. (AP) – Internet search leader Google Inc. is preparing to steer more telephone traffic through an online command center that it acquired nearly two years ago.
The Mountain View, Calif.-based company is heralding the expansion on Thursday by rebranding GrandCentral Communications as Google Voice. Google bought GrandCentral in July 2007 for an undisclosed amount.
As part of the transition to the new identity, Google is upgrading the service for GrandCentral's current users to include automated transcriptions of voicemails and discounts on international calls.
For now, Google Voice will only be available to the people who already have been relying on GrandCentral to manage incoming calls on their office, home and mobile phone lines. Google says several hundred thousand people have GrandCentral accounts.
The free service has been closed to new users while Google retooled the technology to handle a wider audience. Within the next few weeks, Google Voice will begin welcoming people who had signed up to be on the service's waiting list, said Vincent Paquet, a GrandCentral co-founder who is now running the service for Google.
Here's how it works: Google Voice assigns a unique phone number to each user. Calls to the Google Voice number can then be directed to any other phone line. The service also provides a hub for all messages. The online command center also enables a user to customize greetings for friends and family or ward off unwelcome callers.
"Google is all about helping you manage your information, and one of the big holes right now is in the management of voice communications," Paquet said.
This isn't Google's first attempt to become a bigger player in the telecommunications market. The company has also built a software platform for mobile devices, called Android, that's designed to ensure that people on the go can easily access Google's services when they are away from home or the office.
And yesterday, Google announced that it will use its surveillance of Web surfing habits to figure out which ads are best suited to each individual's interests – a practice likely to illuminate just how much the Internet search leader has been learning about millions of people around the world.
Under the program announced Wednesday, someone who frequents sites about dogs might see more ads for flea treatment products, even when visiting another Web destination that has nothing to do with pets.
The tactic relies on technology that Google got last year in a $3.2 billion acquisition of the Internet ad service DoubleClick Inc. Some of the opposition to the deal revolved around potential privacy intrusions, but Google overcame those misgivings during an extensive review to win regulators' approval for the deal.
The ads, set to debut within the next few weeks, initially will appear on Google's YouTube and thousands of other sites that belong to Google's ad network.
Google is following major rivals like Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. that already have been customizing ads based on the past activities of specific Web browsers. Until now, Google had been tying its ads solely to search requests and the general content on Web pages.
Although Yahoo and Microsoft already have been tying ads to people's presumed interests, Google's embrace of this "behavioral" targeting is more troubling to privacy watchdogs. That is because the company already has used its dominant position in the Internet search market to build a huge database of potentially sensitive information about the kinds of things that people are looking for on the Web.
Now Google is taking it a step further by tracking people's favorite Web sites to divine individual tastes and then package ads falling under the same areas of interest. The company intensified its monitoring activity in December when it began putting a sliver of DoubleClick's computer code, called a "cookie," on its advertising partners' Web sites.
"This is a very serious development," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "I don't think the world's largest search engine should be in the business of profiling people."
Rotenberg is hoping Google's embrace of behavioral targeting prompts the Federal Trade Commission to take another look at the DoubleClick acquisition and perhaps mandate privacy safeguards.
Hoping to avoid a backlash and appease regulators, Google has set up its system so individuals can specify their areas of interest or shun certain forms of advertising (available here ).
"We are pleased that our launch of interest-based advertising includes innovative, consumer-friendly features to provide meaningful transparency and choice for our users," Nicole Wong, Google's deputy general counsel, wrote in a blog posting.
The Progress & Freedom Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, applauded Google for creating a "gold standard" that puts the company's stamp on behavioral targeting ads and provides clear explanations on how to avoid them. The group brushed off the criticism of Google's expansion into behavioral targeting as "paroxysms of privacy hysteria."
Google is betting most people will enjoy seeing more ads catering to their interests. In the process, Google is hoping it can boost its revenue, which climbed 31 percent to nearly $22 billion last year despite a recession that hammered many of its customers and partners.
Anyone can also opt out of the targeting program, a choice that Google probably realizes the overwhelming majority of people won't take the time to do, said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Both Yahoo and Microsoft also offer opt-out features.
Echoing a familiar sentiment among consumer activists, Chester believes people should be subjected to behavioral targeting only if they give their explicit permission.
"It would have been nice if Google had taken a stand against behavioral targeting instead of endorsing the model," Chester said. "We are now in an arms race of digital data collection where companies are trying to outdo each other in pursuit of the 21st century's Holy Grail – advertising."