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Google Wins by Not Hiding the Banana

By Andrew Goodman, 8/24/2001

Why did Google win?


No, you haven't missed any awards ceremonies, and yes, there are still a few
other search engine companies in business. But consider this: if you've looked
at yours or anyone else's server logs lately, you'll see that Google wins in a
landslide over all other search referrers. Google is a huge search referrer now.


A typical webmaster's log file might show the following referrer info:



  • Google.com: a lot.

  • Google.Yahoo.com: about 20% of the number of Google.com referrals.

  • AltaVista: a little

  • Yahoo: a little

  • Everything else including MSN and AOL: fuhgeddabout it, unless you pay
    heavily for inclusion or clicks.


When it comes to what webmasters used to think of as "search engine referrals"
- unpaid referrals from a keyword-based spider engine (or even paid referrals
- unless you spend heavily, Inktomi won't drive much traffic to your site) - the
situation is basically one of total Google dominance. Which must mean that they
are rapidly approaching dominance as the engine of choice for mainstream users.


How did this happen? And is the trend likely to reverse itself anytime soon?


Industry observers offer a variety of explanations for Google's runaway popularity
with consumers. They break down as follows.


Timing

Seth Godin, a leading authority on permission marketing and buzz
building
, puts timing at the top of his list of reasons for Google's success.
Being a later mover meant that this was the "third wave" or the "new, improved
version," argues Godin. "The first wave was the big guys. The second wave (Ask
Jeeves, etc.) got swamped in the noise of the first wave. We were ready for
version 3."


Andy Feit, Executive VP of Sales and Marketing for Quiver,
an enterprise taxonomy software company, points out that Google got into the game
at the tail end of the venture capital boom and thus was able to operate as a
well-funded private company with some insulation from immediate market demands. "In
an era when the venture community was more concerned with page views and unique
visitors instead of profitabilty," says Feit, "Google did not need to compete
on the same terms as the people they were up against. They could afford to price
at a level that lost money on every query. They could afford to forgo the advertising
revenue in lieu of a cleaner, faster page."


Godin adds that "the Yahoo deal [to replace Inktomi as Yahoo's spider engine] gave
them credibility at just the right moment."


The cognoscenti loved it

A well known principle of buzz as explained by Emanuel Rosen, author of The
Anatomy of Buzz
, is the degree to which influential "network hubs" take to
a new product, book, movie, etc. The cognoscenti can be wrong, of course. While
the Palm Pilot successfully made the transition out of the hands of early adopters
into a mainstream market, other grand ideas that were embraced by industry publications
and commentators, such as pen-based computing, flopped. But in many cases, word
of mouth travels best when trusted authorities (what Godin calls "sneezers" in
his colorful Unleashing The Ideavirus) truly embrace a new product. For whatever
reason, Google seemed hipper than the available options, and many of us noticed
small but gratifying things they were implementing on their site.


Clean navigation and singular focus

Many have pointed to Google's clean interface as an important part of what resonated
with users. Steve Thomas, CEO of href="http://www.wherewithal.com">Wherewithal, a provider of enterprise search technology,
argues that "it's not so much that Google made their product simple, but rather
that they actually marketed SEARCH. When's the last time you heard of Yahoo or
Excite spending money to convince people that their search results were better?
They seem to have completely abandoned the idea."


AltaVista tried the same tactic, aping Google with its Raging Search product
in the summer of 2000. AltaVista corporate strategists decided to return
to the company's roots and once again court the "search enthusiast market"
- but it was too little, too late. And the site which was supposed to be pure
search was, after all, an additional site, which sent mixed signals to consumers.
After Raging Search was abandoned, the AltaVista site was once again the
only AltaVista site, and following the abandonment of AltaVista's portal
ambitions, it is laser-focused on search. But at this stage, it's even later
in the game, and most know that AltaVista sees its future as a provider of corporate
search software, making consumers even less willing to embrace a site they assume
is being abandoned.


The flipside, then, is that the portal wars left the search field wide open
for a focused newcomer. AltaVista's failed portal ambitions are well documented,
but the broad focus of Yahoo, Excite, and others made them forget their search roots
as well, which led them "to ignore their users, and their site logs," says Thomas,
who was a senior Netscape engineer before co-founding Wherewithal. "At Netscape, the
#1 most hit page besides Home was Search - by a factor of about 10x over the next
most hit," he adds. "To this day people still call Yahoo a search engine even
though they prefer the term portal. To most users, that's what Yahoo is."


Godin, who has recently produced an e-book on consumer-friendly site design,
The Big Red Fez, sums this up succinctly: "They had a banana and they didn't
hide it." Godin compares web surfers to the monkeys in scientific experiments
who need to go through certain steps to get a banana. If it isn't clear where
the banana is (the site's main benefit), the monkey (consumers) won't
bother to go looking for it. Google, obviously, served up search and nothing
but search at a time when everyone else forgot this basic don't-hide-the-banana principle.


Tara Calishain, publisher of an Internet site and newsletter for research professionals
called href="http://www.researchbuzz.com">ResearchBuzz, points to the fact that Google's relevance
and unique ranking methods were openly available for the average surfer or
research pro to try out, because Google ran its own search site. In what
seemed like a good idea at the time, Google's main spider-based competition, Inktomi,
adopted a strategy to power search engines for other companies such as Yahoo (which
later dropped Inktomi for Google) and MSN.


This might have put Inktomi too much at the mercy of its partners, though
it has tried to repatriate some of its control over revenue streams recently
with the inception of a paid inclusion model. "With Inktomi I think it was
the fact that early on they worked on licensing their tech out to other people,
and didn't do a lot to push the Inktomi site itself. A lot of people lost interest
in them - including me - because you couldn't tell what they were up to. They
were kind of just out there," says Calishain.


Inktomi seemed to let the initial advantage of impressive href="http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1003-200-323227.html?tag=rltdnws">press clippings, particularly
the scientific cachet surrounding Inktomi's co-founder and first CEO
Paul Gauthier, slip away from them. They ceased to be in users' faces, so
there was no easy way for analysts or consumers to develop an affection
for Inktomi.


Detlev Johnson, moderator of href="http://www.adventive.com/lists/isearch/summary.html">i-search, a newsletter for search
engine optimization professionals and online marketers seeking search engine submission
tips, recently echoed this sentiment in the August 16 edition
of the newsletter. Johnson writes:


"Google deserves praise for their relevancy if, for nothing else, they woke journalists
up to behold the power of relevant Web search. Until now, no one has been able
to view Inktomi unfettered by Looksmart, DirectHit or ODP. That's a difficult
PR situation for Inktomi. Google should feel lucky that they can compete without
Inktomi in the mix for search audience mind-share where journalists hang out.


"How can online journalists praise something they can't use or see clearly?"


The foundation of buzz: the product itself

Word-of-mouth does not spread if the product doesn't truly impress people. "Google
is a great little hack," smiles Steve Thomas. "This allowed Google to
win almost every single pure search engine review, making them the only option
for anybody that ever read such a review. More than their algorithm was the fact
that they took the lead in pages covered. It's hard to argue with 'more'
when it comes to a crawler search."


Andy Feit agrees that "first and foremost it came down to Google having a great
product. For about a year, Google had a clear relevance advantage over everyone
else, and at the same time had a very large index and good performance. At this
point, the relevance advantage is no longer a differentiator (I could argue some
have even out-Googled Google), but that hardly matters -people still think of
them as having the best relevance."


The name

"Google" is just one of those awesome naming coups that comes along every
so often. Imagine how far they might have gotten with a clunky name like
ArraySearch or HottFind. Or, um, Raging Search.


At this point, all we can do is sit back and observe what Google does with its
big lead. It's like an amateur champ (or Tiger Woods?) taking a six-shot
lead going into the final round at href="http://www.masters.org/">The Masters. There are hundreds of smart players that can
beat you on any given day, snapping at your heels. And the magic can slip away
without explanation.

Andrew Goodman is Editor-at-Large of Traffick.com and the author of "Winning Results with Google Adwords". 

 

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