In 2005, the news got out that Google Inc. had purchased a jet airplane. Jokes immediately circulated about Google becoming a commercial airliner.
Google Air? Maybe not, but a Google airfare listing and fare comparison service made its debut that year.
Behind the humor, though, is a very serious point about Google, and how it has changed the Internet experiences of hundreds of millions of people.
It's clear that Google is no longer content to dominate the Internet search business, and is now looking at other areas. The influence of the Mountain View, Calif., company is such that by offering a veritable Swiss Army knife of Web-based services, it leads each of its competitors to make similar moves.
That means big changes in what billions of consumers and businesses can expect from an Internet search company.
Using an Internet search engine no longer means going to a barren-looking Web site, entering a term and getting a listing of addresses. It is now like eating at a buffet, where anything goes and the choices at times can be overwhelming.
The impact of Google shedding its stand-alone search approach reaches beyond the Web search industry.
Retail giant Wal-Mart is said to be tracking Google's new Google Base, an online listings service that's supposedly a precursor to an eBay Inc.-like online retailing operation. Computing giant Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash., usually reacts to every Google move.
"Google originally had a laser-like focus on search; now that laser's definitely changed, and entire industries change as a result," said Gary Price, editor of the Searchenginewatch.com Web site.
While history is replete with very influential companies that push their markets in just such a way (eBay, of San Jose, Calif., is one prime example), Google stands out because of its enormous success in a short period of time.
There aren't a lot of companies whose products are so ubiquitous that the company name becomes a verb (to "google" is now recognized as meaning to search the Web). Google has managed to achieve this status, and in a lightning-like five years.
But maybe the lexicography's off?
Google now offers high-speed Internet access and Internet phone services, corporate computing hardware and software, online retailing, e-mail, instant messaging and Web traffic analysis, and the list goes on. It's rumored that Google is even cooking up its own brand of cell phones and a financial information site.
Microsoft, which owns the search engine and Internet portal MSN, and Yahoo Inc. proprietor of the world's most popular Web destination, now resemble giant service providers, with their rudimentary triple plays of broadband, television and Internet phone services.
Ask Jeeves Inc., one of the original search engines, has also begun diversifying. In 2005, it bought a network of Webloggers, Bloglines.
Is there room for anybody else to challenge the big guys with a general Web search engine? Sure, but analysts identifying search trends in 2006 say any new companies will have to do what Google doesn't do, and do it really, really well.
That usually means specializing in searching for information on a single topic, such as medicine or travel, which a growing number of search providers now do if they choose to operate solely as Internet search providers.
"There's always room for smaller players, but challenging the top four or five is going to be very, very difficult," Searchenginewatch's Price said.
Two oft-mentioned examples of "verticals," as they are known, are Topix.Net, which has more than 300,000 topically based Web sites populated with news from more than 10,000 sources, and Exalead, a Europe-based, enterprise-focused search company that entered the U.S. market in October.
Experts also say that survival in the search market now also means offering a unique take on Internet search techniques, another trend to look for in 2006.
To that end, analysts expect an increase in metasearch engines that allow users to scan several search engines at once. An example is Indeed.com, an up-and-coming jobs listing search engine.