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Monday, April 13, 2009

Perception, Not Reality, Could Topple Google in Search

Reading recent Twitter-will-crush-Google musings, it looks like the reasoning goes something like this: Google cannot do real-time search as well as Twitter. Ergo, Twitter will take over as a search engine people turn to for this type of information.

There is a chance that a growing Twitter could make significant inroads on that front. But it wouldn't be because Google lacks the capability. They can develop or add this relatively quickly on a variety of fronts, and the results could often be more useful. Over the weekend I typed "Kenny Perry" into Google and saw a custom result at the top of the page that actually noted his position on the current Masters leaderboard (at the time: T3). Adding more real-time capability isn't something that Google just thought of yesterday. What people are really saying when they say "Google can't do real time" is "Google isn't Twitter." Twitter is the current Lovemark in the space. If you're not them, then you're something else. No feature build will fix that, because it's all about who's there at what time. It's not like Google can index your direct messages inside Twitter or organize all the information in the same way Twitter and Twitter apps do.

The fact that Google can do the immediacy thing, and could add more of it to the mix, might not make any difference to users, then. If people want to use Twitter as a starting point for their social and informational lives, then increasingly they will.

And of course, given Twitter's major shortcomings, it's very possible that it's a placeholder for a sentiment of community and immediacy that is happening at a certain place in time. As I wrote here on a perfect April day eight years ago, online communities endure as platforms come and go. (Remember kids, online community is like Christine, the haunted 1958 Plymouth.) As sure as day turns to night, in a few years, everyone will migrate somewhere else, and you'll have to migrate with them to stay connected.

As community and peer based thought have risen to the forefront, we may finally - after a ten-year run - be seeing the all-powerful concept of "search" losing ground to a new dominant metaphor: "share". By "losing ground", I mean this could be merely as a concept, or it could be in the sense of "what's the first place people think of to go online to solve a problem or get information?" By and large, it's been Google in this decade. Many have said that will give way to Facebook, as if one is somehow mutually exclusive to the other. Still, the fact that Google "isn't sticky" -- a threat many analysts used to level at the search giant, and one that increasingly looked laughable as repeat visits and profits piledu up -- could indeed be its Achilles heel in the coming years.

This shift didn't just happen yesterday, but it seems to be gelling.

Of all their many strengths, Google's key weakness is that they really own none of the top-of-mind brands in collaboration, community, and sharing (not counting GMail and GTalk of course, which are formidable but also private, and not counting YouTube): Facebook, Skype, Twitter, all major brands that somehow Google couldn't surpass with in-house offerings.

Not only does this weakness threaten to paint Google in a light it's never been comfortable with -- big, impersonal corporation -- an acquisition of any of these properties wouldn't do much to change that situation because the user bases would lament the loss of an "independent" community. Yahoo began facing up to that difficult paradox more than a decade ago, and arguably hasn't done much to solve it. Independent digital brands engender a lot of loyalty and enthusiasm for their pioneering spirit, but they have trouble scaling, so they sell out to the big brands. And that allows the cycle to begin anew.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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