At last week’s conference, Dan Nunan told a story of how some bozo had claimed that if somebody built a better search engine then people would switch from Google in an instant. Some Silicon Valley start-up could do to Google what Google did to Alta Vista. Since that bozo was me, I think I’d better justify myself.
Dan’s point is that Google is much more than an algorithm. It’s a brand. We use Google for the same reason we eat at McDonalds or Starbucks: it delivers a guaranteed, consistent experience whenever we use it, wherever we use it. And it’s not just about the physical experience: we identify with brands and their values. The brands we eat, drink and wear are symbols we use to communicate to others in our tribe.
Starbucks vs Peets, Coca Cola vs Pepsi, Dasani vs Evian. These are battles fought over brands, not substance. Brew a better coffee, create a better fizzy drink or produce better water and you will not dent these brands’ dominance. And it’s not just about marketing: even Virgin Cola, backed by Richard Branson’s flair for marketing and publicity, failed to hurt Coke or Pepsi.
With commodities, brand beats product. In Seattle, I came across two neighbouring coffee shops. One was Starbucks, one was a local one-off cafe. The local one sold better coffee, had better service and was empty. The Starbucks sold worse coffee, had worse service and was full.
Dan’s thesis is that Google’s dominance is based on more than technology. Even if search becomes commoditized (is Google really technically much better than Ask or Live?), Google’s strength is its brand. We’re familiar with it, we trust it and we won’t switch, the same way we won’t switch from Coke to Virgin Cola or from Windows to BeOS.
I’m not sure I agree though. Our interactions with search engines are too fleeting to build a significant bond we’re reluctant to break. My choice of clothes, music or fizzy drink might say something about me, but does my choice of search engine? The ease of switching is high, and the costs and risks low. If I change the coffee I drink, the clothes that I wear or the music I listen to then I risk drinking bad coffee, looking stupid in ill-fitting clothes or making a fool of myself in front of my peers. I use Google maybe 30 times a day. That’s 200 times a week I have a chance to surreptitiously flirt with Live over Google. It’s not that embarrassing and nobody will ever know if it doesn’t work.
So I have the means to switch (it’s free), and I have the opportunity (200 times a week). All I need is the motive. If somebody built a better search engine maybe the world wouldn’t beat a path to their door, but I for one would try it. And if it were better, I’d switch.
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