For many months, nay years me and my ilk have wondered, “What will Google’s play be in online music?” License content and sell it through Google Checkout? Buy a small upstart music service?

Well, the answer is no and no. Really, all Google wants to do is just control the search results for music searches. And, you know, maybe help out a struggling online music service or two.

By pulling back the curtain on its new, refined music-search feature, Google also helped a number of legitimate online music services step out from the shadows of an online music ecosystem dominated by the Apple iTunes-iPod-iPhone troika or the dark net (the millions of folks using P2P and Torrent technologies to get free content).

My first take-away: Anybody who doesn’t admit that their use of P2P or Torrent technology is simply to acquire free music – and tries to rationalize it with some other reason – is really just a Philistine. Seriously.

Second take-away: if you’re iLike, Lala or Rhapsody and Napster, there’s nothing like having the world’s largest search engine ride in and help goose those site visitor numbers, am I right?

What really is important, however, are the key refinements Google’s made to searching for music online:

– Full-song streams directly within the search results.  Direct links to services such as MySpace+iLike, Lala, Rhapsody, Napster, iMeem and Pandora that, in their own way, will allow users to stream full-length versions of the songs they were looking for or make direct purchases if the service has an a la carte download store (which is all of them although Pandora’s actually provides links to iTunes or Amazon).

– Refined, filtered search results that logically arrange results by artist, band or song title

– Lyric-fragment search or partial-album-title search are resolved or enhanced due to Google’s work with Gracenote which has a comprehensive, licensed, lyric database

At a launch event held in the historic Capitol Records building in Los Angeles, and hosted by Google and EMI (represented by Marissa Mayer, Google’s head of search and consumer experience, and Syd Schwartz, SVP of global digital marketing, EMI, respectively), was really a testament to just how powerful a set of algorithms can really be in this day in age. Or more precisely, how powerful a set of refined search algorithms can potentially give a slew of legit online music services an important boost in their quest to drive revenue (to satisfy their investors).

Google noted that music-related searches are two of the top 10 search queries of all time. No surprise here as Gartner’s consumer research has shown that online music consumers usually start a search by getting a word-of-mouth recommendation and that the first thing they do is go to a search engine like Google. The most popular thing they do after they find the content they want? They want to sample it immediately. (See How U.K. Online Consumers Find Music on the Internet , How U.S. Online Consumers Find Music on the Internet, How Online Consumers in Italy Find Music on the Internet).

The primary beneficiaries of Google’s algorithmic largesse are going to be iLike (creators of popular social networking music apps which was recently purchased by MySpace) and Lala, a venture-funded start-up that started out as an online market where people could exchange used CDs has morphed into an online service where one can download a song for $.89 or pay $.10 to have permanent access to the song as a stream. Rhapsody and Napster are also likely to receive some incremental benefit from having links to their services as well.

To their credit, Lala and iLike execs, Bill Nguyen of Lala, in particular, noted that Google’s music search feature was a great step forward for consumers looking for music online, but that it was up to the services to turn that potential traffic into revenue. And Google’s RJ Pittman underscored that when he said that Google’s “…pushing the business opportunities down stream” to the services and that Google would benefit by simply providing a better search experience for their users.

And these days, the way you compete with “free” or iTunes is that you have to out “experience” them. And therein lies the challenge for iLike, Lala, iMeem, etc.

Not surprisingly, iTunes and Amazon weren’t part of the announcement and aren’t featured in the search results that a user will see. Frankly, neither of those two really need much help and the music labels are going to be more than happy to see searches which highlight iTunes competitors. So this isn’t really meant to be nor will it be an iTunes killer.

But now we know what Google’s position is going to be any current or future developments in online music (and other media): at the starting line.


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