In a short-sighted play for ad revenue, Google is making the world's information slightly less universally accessible and slightly less useful.
On December 5th, Google quietly stopped accepting new sign-ups for the Google SOAP Search API. This search API was a free service that allowed developers to send search queries to the Google back-end and receive results back without having to screen scrape and without violating Google's terms of service. While Google reports "we have no plans to turn off the service in the future", one senses this is the first step towards shutting it down. (And it never even made it out of beta...)
This API provides (provided) programmatic access to Google's organic search results. Superficially, this change has nothing to do with online advertising. But it does. Back in September '05, I wrote an article on open content and open apps, applauding the web's motion towards openness. I used the tags "open content" for common web data standards (RSS, microformats) and "open apps" for common web APIs (web services, mashups). Google's API announcement is a move in the opposite direction. Despite Google's mission statement, this change makes web data less universally accessible and useful. This shuts the door on interesting mashups, be they commercial, academic, or personal.
In place of the SOAP API, Google is pushing their Ajax Search API. This API doesn't return data -- it returns formatted HTML with (surprise) Google branding and (surprise) Google ads. And no, one is not allowed to scrape the interesting data bits out of the HTML wrapper. Bad guys who ignored Google's terms-of-service before will return to screen scraping. Folks who play by the rules will head over to Yahoo.
Yes, Yahoo. In response, Yahoo has reiterated their long-standing commitment to real search APIs. Good stuff Yahoo -- kudos. (And another example of Y using Google announcements to differentiate themselves.) I found it interesting it took some digging to find sample apps based on the Google API -- I finally turned up the lyric search engine Find Me A Tune and Web Search Assistant over at TechRepublic. In contrast, there's a whole application gallery of web apps based on the Y API.
Google's policy change won't change the web to any great degree. But this small change does offer insight into how Google continues to adjust their focus: ads, ads, ads.