Another contender has rolled into the classified advertising arena, and this time it’s a 20-ton gorilla: Google Base, a service that allows people to list pieces of content on a publicly searchable online database, launched Wednesday.

The product works somewhat similarly to online classified site craigslist, making it possible to quickly and easily create a free post that will appear online and can be located by searching on specific terms, such as “real estate for sale.”

While Google says the product is an extension of its existing offerings, such as its search engine and print and video offerings, it could also pose a threat to traditional classified ad businesses, such as national and local newspapers as well as other online listings services.

Before it can pose a serious threat, the product may need some tweaking. As of Wednesday, a number of technical problems were reported, including problems with uploading photos. Regardless, at least one potential major real estate advertiser, Harmon Homes, has shown an interest in the product.

With options like Craigslist offering free classified ads, real estate and other advertisers have been defecting from print newspaper advertising to online venues. According to Portsmouth, Va.-based Borrell Associates, newspapers had a 2 percent loss in real estate advertising market share between 2003 and 2004, while online venues gained 2 percent.

The 2005 report found that this trend is continuing, with Web advertising expected to reach 34 percent of all annual real estate ad spend by 2009.

Google Base presents another online option.

“We’re already finding that Realtors are increasing their online spending. They’ve already got an appetite for doing this kind of thing; this is just going to make it easier for them,” said Jim Townsend, editorial director of Classified Intelligence, a consulting firm for the interactive classified advertising industry that did a 2005 study of the issue co-sponsored by Inman News .

“Google Base is going to get used by a lot of people,” Townsend said. “Advertisers are going to go wherever the people are.” Google has more than 380 million users a month, according to its Web site, and has been expanding its services to include products such as e-mail and mapping.

However, Townsend said, print newspaper advertising is still alive and well. “Clients will still demand that that their agents advertise in the print section of the newspaper. Print is a far cry from its last breath.”

Google Base gives a unique Web address to each user’s content, allowing people to easily post information without the need to create and maintain a Web page. Based on the relevance of the items submitted, they may also be included in the main Google search index and other Google products like Froogle, Google Base and Google Local, Google said on its Web site.

“Clearly there are all kinds of advertising possibilities,” Townsend said.

Though currently, none of the category choices include real estate, Townsend said he saw a screen shot of what the real estate landing page would look like when the site accidentally went live in late October.

Townsend said Google is in talks with advertising “providers,” such as real estate ad publishers, and the providers are test-seeding Google Base with listings, though Google has not publicly indicated this.

“Just because it’s (Google Base) free is not that much of an attraction. But what if Google is making deals with real estate ad publishers, not unlike what Yahoo! does with Prudential, except in a non-exclusionary way, and suddenly there are hundreds of thousands of listings?” the editorial director asked.

Townsend was referring to the fact that Yahoo and Prudential have a deal in which the real estate company supplies property listings to Yahoo!. “The thing that makes that work is that Prudential has such a huge footprint,” said Townsend, who refused to speculate as to which major advertisers might consider teaming up with Google Base.

“We are looking at all kinds of ways to extend our client’s reach and we’re interested in the potential that Google Base would have to offer,” said Dave Mangold, vice president of business development for Harmon Homes, a publishing company that has expanded into online advertising.

Mangold said, “We would like to evaluate the live version and make sure it’s something our customers want and could benefit from before we move forward with it.”

Currently, there are some technical problems with Google Base. “It choked when I tried to upload a photo,” Townsend noted. Another problematic feature: While it’s possible to search for items, there aren’t established pages on the site with categories, the way there are on craigslist. Searching for specific items can be cumbersome.

Google Base’s effect on real estate advertising is yet to be seen, but at least one newspaper source said he’s not threatened by the development.

“I don’t know that I speak for the whole industry, but I see it as an opportunity,” said Rusty Coats, general manager of Tampa Bay Online. “Some people like to build walls around their ads, but I think the more eyeballs that come in, the better it is for everybody.”

Coats said his newspaper is highly competitive with online classified sites.

“There’s always some level of threat to anyone building a better mousetrap to get to your goods, But part of what we offer is quality editorial. I’m a fan of what goes up on Craigslist and the others, but the quality of the ads isn’t always on par with what we offer to the consumer. If at the end we offer a good housekeeping seal of approval to consumers, they will always reward this,” Coats said.

***

Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to janis@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 140.

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