Why Google is Habit Forming

First published February 14, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

My wife Jill was the victim of another drive-by “why-ing” — and I, of course, was the perpetrator.

There’s a small specialty grocery store where we live that Jill visits every week or two. And almost every time, she complains about the experience. Outdated stock is repackaged. Food is rancid. The staff is surly. But she keeps buying there. After listening to another long-winded vent, I dared to go where no man should go. I asked her “why?”

There were a number of reasons that she gave. It’s on the way on her daily route. Parking is convenient. Prices are low. But the biggest reason was one she didn’t express, because she didn’t know it. It had become a habit. And habits are tough things to break.

Why We Have Habits

Like almost everything else, habits are a way we cope with the world. They’re cognitive shortcuts so we can save our brains for more appropriate work. And most times, they work pretty well. When things work the same way the majority of times, we don’t have to think about them every single time. We relegate them to habits. It’s why we have such difficult times with doorknobs, even when we’re given instructions (“push” or “pull” –and thanks to SI reader Peter Simmons for the example). Our brain is in short-cut mode, so it’s not taking the time to read signs. Based on the shape of the door handle, the presence or absence of push plates, whether we’re entering or exiting and other cues, the brain makes a decision to push or pull without really consulting our conscious mind. We won’t even see the sign (which would engage our consciousness) unless we don’t get the result we expect.

Habits are grooves worn in the brain, and they tend to be relatively durable because of that. The rule of thumb seems to be about three weeks. So, if you moved a light switch from the right side of the door to the left side, it would take about 21 days before your brain stopped telling your right hand to turn on the switch.

The Hand is Quicker Than the Brain

Here’s the important part of that circuit (the one in the brain, not the one that turns on the light). The loop between the brain and the right hand is an unconscious one. It’s made of synapses firing on autopilot. At a conscious level, you know the switch is on the left side, but the conscious loop is slower than the unconscious one. It’s the laziness of the brain at work. If we don’t have to think about everything, why should we? So your right hand is already patting the wall looking for the switch before your rational, thinking brain catches up and says, “It’s on the other side, idiot.” This has to happen a couple dozen times before the new groove in your brain is established and you can go back to not thinking about turning on the light switch.

Why Incumbents Usually Win

Now, in my typical, roundabout way, I am getting to why this is important in search. If we think about habits, it starts to become clear why Google has such a huge market share advantage. I’d like to introduce another idea called the “incumbency effect.”   When it refers to politics, the incumbency effect means that once you win an election, you have a greater chance of winning subsequent elections for the same office. This is due to several factors that give you the edge in the eyes of voters: familiarity, experience in the role, access to funding and the ability to call in favors racked up during the previous term. All things being equal, incumbents are tough to beat.

But in other arenas outside politics, the incumbency effect can also be driven by the fact that habits are formed. It’s not just the rational reasons why an incumbent can be tough to dethrone; it’s also the irrational ones. The incumbent has worn a groove in our brain. And to knock off an incumbent, with all these things in their favor, you can’t just be a slightly better alternative. You have to be significantly more attractive. Either the incumbent has to screw up badly, or you have to offer a dramatic improvement over them.

As per usual, my weekly allotment of words has run out before my idea, so I’ll pick this up next week, when we look at the incumbency effect and a parallel concept, cognitive lock in, and how they’re playing out in the world of search.

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