updated 12/2/2004 8:42:27 AM ET 2004-12-02T13:42:27

Google Inc. is improving on the discussions its popular Web site hosts, hoping the upgrades will spur more online banter and make its market-leading search engine a richer destination.

The Mountain View-based company began tinkering with the changes in May but waited until Thursday to promote its new discussion group features with a link located above its heavily trafficked search engine.

Google has offered discussion groups since 2001, when the company bought the Usenet archives, but the previous features were more limited and more difficult to navigate.

With the upgrade, Google's discussion group more closely mirrors a service already offered by Yahoo Inc., continuing the two rivals' penchant for shadowing each other's movements.

Google's improvements are designed to make it easier for people to create discussions focused on common group interests, such as TV shows and sports teams.  The new tools also will enable discussion participants to customize which subjects are displayed and receive e-mail related to designated topics.

"The goal here is to create more interesting content," said Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer Web products.  "The more interesting content we have to search, the better job we can do at search."

Although Google won't charge to view or participate in group discussions, the company hopes to make money by delivering text-based ads tied to search requests that look for insights and advice within the conversations.

More like a 'portal'
Google's search engine has become a powerful — and lucrative — drawing card, but the company is battling to maintain its edge as both Yahoo and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN put their marketing muscle behind their own rival products.

Through September, Google held a 34.9 percent market share of online search followed by Yahoo at 31.5 percent and Microsoft at 15.2 percent, according to comScore Networks.

Search engine analyst Danny Sullivan said Google's discussion group improvements would be more impressive if the company also had developed a more effective way to sift through other online forums — a rich vein of potentially helpful information.  "We don't need to be creating more content on the Internet. We just need to filter the existing content a little better," Sullivan said.

As it continues to adopt more of the features found on Yahoo, Google is becoming more like a "portal" — a Web site that tries to draw traffic by serving up a smorgasbord of popular services, such as news, sports, shopping and e-mail.

Google already offers so many of these features that Sullivan likens the company's search engine to a "stealth portal." 

It's a description that Google dislikes.  "We would never duplicate a portal strategy," Mayer said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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