latest act of public service could eventually help bolster its own bottom line.
On Thursday, the company's YouTube video-sharing site launched its You Chose '08 Spotlight, a forum that lets U.S. presidential candidates post videos that solicit voter input. Candidates then respond to user videos with additional video posts. YouTube's list of candidates who have agreed to participate includes every major contender who has declared a bid for the presidency.
Of course, YouTube's impact on the political landscape has been widely noted. Its enormous reach has offered footage -- ranging from the infamous remark by former Virginia Senator George Allen to Democratic candidate John Edwards fixating on his hair before a televised interview -- to an audience that would previously have been unimaginable.
But for Google investors, YouTube's latest step may be noteworthy for a somewhat different reason. Signing all major political candidates for the most important race in the country is an impressive show of strength. The move will serve to further widen the moat between YouTube and the rapidly proliferating crop of video-sharing and social-networking sites that have popped up in the wake of its success.
It also offers a glimpse at the type of content that competitors will have a hard time creating.
New video sites seem to be born every day, leading many critics to question what makes YouTube so special -- and whether it's worth the hefty price tag and major headaches that Google seems to have gotten as part of the deal.
Indeed, since closing the YouTube acquisition in mid-November, Google's shares are off nearly 5% to $466.29.
But amid the hundreds of video sites out there, it's hard to believe any of them could have come close to giving YouTube a run for its money when it came to being the go-to site for 2008 presidential candidates.
Standing out from the competition is key for social-networking sites that are heavy on so-called user-generated content, many of which seem to implode as quickly as they gain momentum. Take Friendster: Backed by illustrious Silicon Valley venture capital fund Kliener, Perkins, Caufiled and Beyers, the site was the hottest social networking play in 2003.
But the rise of other social-networking plays such as MySpace, Facebook, Tribe and LinkedIn quickly drowned out Friendster. The site continues to limp on, but it's nowhere near being the contender it was.
Meanwhile, rivals have been assaulting YouTube's market position from every side possible. Perhaps it was ripped-off snippets of media-produced content that made YouTube successful? Well, a host of new video-sharing sites are hoping to do better: Unconstrained by the 10-minute video limit on YouTube, many are posting shows in their entirety.
Or was it the quirky uploads posted by users that made YouTube? Well, another batch of sites is paying users for their contributions, hoping to buy its way into the market.
And then there are competing ventures such as the partnership between
But YouTube's political venture provides a blueprint for the type of unique content that can make it continue to stand out. Its powerful brand -- combined with its enormous contributor base and community -- allow it access to content that neither the big media studios nor those looking for mercenary contributors can match. Major political candidates can't be seen as aligned with any major media network. Nor are they likely to be swayed by small sums of cash or to trust their content to sketchier video-sharing outfits.
"This program is absolutely unique to YouTube," says Steve Grove, head of news and politics for YouTube. "The candidates are very excited about coming on a platform that has millions of eyeballs across the world. They recognize the power in that."
Beyond politics, it's easy to envision this formula succeeding in a wide range of fields. Movie stars and studios could take advantage of it to promote new films and learn about what did and didn't work about prior releases. Businesses could use it to talk to customers and investors. The back-and-forth video exchange format used in the campaign can pioneer a form that has much-broader applicability.
And because of YouTube's folksy image, the platform would work whenever overtly corporate allegiances needed to be sidestepped. And because it commands a credibility that other sites can't approach -- and that will only be bolstered by its latest move -- it's also a cut above the many wildly populist entrants into the field.
For the time being, YouTube's latest foray may simply help politicians reach potential voters more easily. But the platform has the potential to let YouTube stand out from a growing crowd over the long haul.