08/16/2011 09:44 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2011

New Google Catalogs iPad App Is All About Browsing--Not Searching

Google has always been squarely in the search business. With its new Google Catalogs app, it hopes to spread into the browsing business.

Google Catalogs recreates the catalog experience on the iPad, featuring digital versions of catalogs from retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman, Pottery Barn, Sephora and Urban Outfitters across six main product categories -- including beauty, gifts, fashion, jewelry and home -- with additional sections on the way. The initial version of the app is targeted primarily at female shoppers, though Google has plans to expand its partnerships and include a wider range of catalogs.

Google has already launched several shopping and style-oriented services, including Google Product Search, a search engine focused on goods, from baby carriages to backpacks, and, a “personalized shopping” site offering designer apparel. What's more, this marks the second time Google has unveiled Google Catalogs: In 2002, Google launched an offering by the same name that digitized print catalogs from more than 600 merchants to make them searchable, as with Google Books. This version of Google Catalogs was shut down in 2009.

The new, app-based Google Catalogs aims to fill a different niche, according to Google Catalogs business product manager Abigail Holtz: inspiring shoppers who want to look, but don’t know exactly what they're looking for.

Whereas Google’s existing services are helpful “when you know what you’re looking for,” Holtz said Google Catalogs is
"all about the browse."

"It satisfies the 'I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it,' " added Holtz. "At its core, it’s a very simple app. It’s just about being inspired and finding things you didn’t know you’d love."

The app is surprisingly basic and barebones considering it’s the brainchild of the company building self-driving cars and looking to make credit cards obsolete. There are a few bells and whistles: Users can create bulletin-board-like “collages” of their favorite items and share these with other users; buy items directly from the app; search catalogs for specific items; or in some cases, watch YouTube videos embedded in the catalogs. But while it’s possible to email products and collages to contacts, sharing these items via Twitter and Facebook, a standard feature on most apps, is not included.

Overall, Google Catalogs is to catalogs as iBooks is to ebooks: it digitizes catalogs, but does not attempt to reinvent them. It also follows in the footsteps of similar, existing iPad apps, such as CatalogSpree, a “mobile catalog shopping app.”

Holtz said that the app will eventually be integrated with Google’s Google+ social network, but she declined to offer more specifics on how the company might integrate the product with its existing offerings.

“There are a lot of ways this works with a lot of Google products, and I can imagine that it will be integrated with the shopping experience across Google products,” Holtz said.

At launch, Google Catalogs will not be available on Google’s Android operating system, but only as an iPad app. The app is free and must be used with an Internet connection.

See screenshots of the app below.