Google Branding

BrandingAt 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.

Would you?

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7 responses to “Google Branding”

  1. Matt Lacey says:

    I tried this.
    I use Google for just about all my search needs, but I was wondering how it compared or how easy/practical it would be to switch.
    I spent a week just using ASK and then a week just using Live/MSN. (This was just for search. I kept using Google Reader, Desktop, Blogger, Groups, and more…)
    Firstly, I found that to switch is a conscious effort. I had to keep reminding myself that I shouldn’t use Google. This was harder than you might think.
    I have shortcuts, search boxes and assorted tools which I use to performs searches. All of these tie me in to using Google for search. If I started using something else it would need to provide a way for me to easily make all the changes to these tools and really be worth my effort to do so.
    My real experience was that I wasn’t finding results as quickly as I did with Google and at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. Get in. Do the search. Get the results.
    I think this comes down to the way I write my queries. The way I write my queries works well with Google. Or, more likely, I’ve learnt to write queries that turn up the results I’m looking for in Google. I dare say that I could learn to tweak the structure of my queries so that I got better results in another search engine but why should I bother? Is it really going to be worth the effort? How would I know?
    If I was to start using a fancy new search engine which would provide better results, I wouldn’t want to have to relearn how to word my queries.
    It seems that for any search engine to be “better enough” to switch to, it is going to have to be MUCH better that Google.

  2. Simon says:

    There is another important factor here. Once a search engine as set as someones homepage, most people, it becomes the default. To a lot of people it becomes the Internet, its AOL all over again.
    It takes effort to change that homepage, any amount of effort no matter how small makes a huge difference.

  3. Bob Cramblitt says:

    I don’t think brand loyalty is as much of a factor with Google, as there are no deeper bonds, such as emotions, a hipness factor, peer pressure, sentimentality. The only bond — at least with me — is with a tool that does a decent job. Even then, I don’t have the affection for it I’d have for a tool that can do something better, easier, faster or cheaper than anything else out there.
    Google has done a good job at locking us in with some added value — iGoogle, gmail, analytics, maps and the like. You’re not locked in as much as you are if you use Windows, but there’s still a time investment. As Simon says, any effort it takes to make a change can be a deterrent.
    So, while I have no brand loyalty, a new search engine would have to be demonstrably better to make me switch. That’s not great branding, just a typical lazy consumer.

  4. Andrew says:

    Google is more than a brand, its a verb. If I ever need something, I just google it. Even my grandparents know what it means to google something.

  5. While I agree with you about Google’s strength being its brand, I think there’s also a case to be made that the search results you get back from Google are better than those from other search engines. A couple of us did a test last year with a relatively obscure name, to see how far down in the search results we had to go in order to find our first irrelevant result (where irrelevant meant it had no connection to what we were looking for). For Google, the first irrelevant result was #50. For Live, the first irrelevant result came up #10. I’m sure Live and Ask have improved since then, but Google is still my first stop when I’m searching for anything.

  6. Nikolay Sokratov says:

    I do think that people perceive Google as a brand. They think of Google and they associate benefits with it. In order for a start up to displace Goggle they would have to have not only a better technology, but also means of communicating the value to the masses; thus , they will have to build a better engine and their own brand. Without that, there sure will be people who would use them, but the majority of people would not even know about their existence. At the present moment, there are very few companies that can compete with Google on the size of marketing budget. So I believe, start up displacing Google is out of the question in the next 10-15 years, specifically because of Google

  7. Rohit says:

    Google will become as irrelevant as AltaVista did when Google appeared. There is no brand loyalty – everyone just wants better results.