Google Inc. started out 13 years ago as a simple search engine, but it has grown into a behemoth that has shaken up dozens of industries, including computers and cellphones.
On Wednesday, it jumped into the music industry.
The Mountain View, Calif., Internet giant unveiled a music search feature that lets users play millions of songs for free with an option to buy or rent them from several online music stores.
Although not a direct threat to Apple Inc.'s hugely popular iTunes store, the new feature is expected to bolster the music services that compete with iTunes.
The move was applauded by the music industry, which has been struggling against piracy that has siphoned off billions of dollars of potential revenue from musicians and recording studios.
The industry is hoping the search feature will direct users to legitimate digital music outlets and in turn help them compete with free but often unauthorized sources of music.
"We're trying to get consumers to interact with some of these more legitimate services," said Thomas Hesse, president of global digital business for Sony Music Entertainment.
"Having Google step up and support this is a positive development."
Google formally rolled out the much anticipated search tool Wednesday at the Capitol Records building in Hollywood with scheduled performances by rock groups OneRepublic and Linkin Park.
But Google, which last month accounted for about 70% of Web searches in the U.S., said it wasn't interested in competing with digital music retailers such as iTunes and Amazon.com Inc.
"We're not in the music business per se," said R.J. Pittman, Google's director of product management. "We don't license the music nor sell the music directly on Google. We are merely a music search feature."
But in steering millions of Internet users to its partner sites, Google is indirectly boosting the sites' abilities to compete with iTunes, which was responsible for 69% of U.S. digital music sales in the first six months of this year, and 35% of all music sales, including physical albums, according to market research firm NPD Group Inc. Amazon, the second-largest player, accounted for 9% of digital music sales and 10% of overall music sales.
Up-and-coming start-ups such as Lala Media Inc. as well as longtime players such as RealNetworks Inc.'s Rhapsody have tried to gain an edge over iTunes and Amazon by offering lower prices or different features.
Lala, for example, lets buyers listen to an entire album once free of charge before they buy. It also sells Web-only songs for as little as 10 cents a track, and downloadable MP3s for 89 cents.
iTunes typically charges 99 cents or more per song. Rhapsody, in comparison, gives subscribers unlimited access to more than 6 million songs for a monthly fee.
Millions of people already use Google to look for music on the Internet and learn more about bands.
The search engine last week accounted for 30% of referral traffic to music-related sites, according to Experian Hitwise, a firm that tracks Internet traffic. At any point, two of the top 10 terms searched using Google are music-related, Pittman said.
With the new tool, the song that's being sought would appear on Google's search page. A search for Coldplay, for example, would yield the band's album cover art alongside four popular songs that users can play once free of charge. Once a song has been played, they will be able to hear only a 30-second sample.
To hear more, users would need to click to one of Google's music partners, including Lala, Rhapsody, Pandora Media Inc., Imeem Inc., and News Corp.'s MySpace Music.
"Technology has made music more affordable and more instantaneous than ever," said Bill Nguyen, co-founder of Palo Alto, Calif.,-based Lala. "Google is helping people to find and listen to what they like with virtually no effort. When you make it easier for people, they tend to buy more music."