Breaking the Google Habit

First published February 28, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

What will it take to beat the Google habit? There’s billions of dollars that hang on the answer to that question. My last two columns looked at the nature of habits and how they can lead to an advantage for incumbents by “locking in” customers or users.

Before we look at some possible answers, it’s important to understand how and why previous attempts at breaking habits have fallen short in an area where far more academic work has been done: health care (Verplanken & Wood, 2006).

Educational campaigns have proven to have little effect on changing habitual behavior. In fact, studies have shown that these campaigns can actually trigger an increase in the unwanted behaviors! Oops, that wasn’t supposed to happen.

The frustration of physicians who are battling unhealthy lifestyle choices in their patients was perfectly summed up in an address given by John McKinley to the American Heart Association over 30 years ago.

“You know,” McKinley said, “sometimes it feels like this. There I am standing by the shore of a swiftly flowing river, and I hear the cry of a drowning man. So I jump into the river, put my arms around him, pull him to shore and apply artificial respiration. Just when he begins to breathe, there is another cry for help. So I jump into the river, reach him, pull him to shore, apply artificial respiration, and then just as he begins to breathe, another cry
for help. So back in the river again, reaching, pulling, applying, breathing and then another yell. Again and again, without end, goes the sequence. You know, I am so busy jumping in, pulling them to shore, applying artificial respiration, that I have no time
to see who the hell is upstream pushing them all in.”

This has led to a reexamination of the “downstream” method of altering behavior; trying to rationally convince people to change their behavior after it’s already become a habit, for example, with education campaigns. The fundamental problem here is, you’re trying to apply a rational solution to an irrational problem. We don’t think about habits, we just do them. That’s the very definition of a habit.

The Strength and Cost of Habits

There are two other components in habitual behavior that have to be understood: the strength of the habit and the cost of executing the habit. Both factor into how hard the habit will be to change. The strength is how closely habits are tied to our personal beliefs, good or bad. If we stop at Starbucks every day because we absolutely love everything about Starbucks, that’s going to be a very hard habit to break. Smoking ups the ante with an actual physical addiction.

Also, how much does it cost us to continue the habit? It I have to go four blocks out of my way to go to Starbucks, that has a personal cost to me. If it’s right on my way to work, that’s different.

Habitual Use of Search

So, let’s wrap up this week’s column with a summary of what we’ve learned about habits, and apply it to search:

·    You typically can’t change habits by a rational appeal after a habit is formed. This explains the failure of every television campaign for search engines looking to grow market share.

·    The strength of habit is a big factor in how likely the habit is to stay in place. So, if you’re looking to steal users from Google by breaking their Google habit, you’re going to be looking to the those folks that use Google because it’s handy, not the ones that have six Google T-shirts hanging in their closet.

·    And finally, you’re going to have to look for a way to catch users before they use Google by intercepting them upstream. The reason Yahoo has been able to maintain its market share over the past few years has a lot more to do with the scope of its presence and the fact that the company can put a Yahoo search box in front of more people before they can get to Google, and a lot less to do with the quality of the search experience. And that’s also why Microsoft’s share has eroded, as more and more default home pages are being switched from MSN.

Next week, in the series that may never end (talk about habit-forming), we look at how challengers to the Google search crown can hope to break the habit. Hint: All the clues point in one direction — upstream!


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