The Last Word on Breaking the Google Habit

First published March 13, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

When I started this series of columns, I had no intention of making it a series. But now, with the fifth (and final) installment, it looks like I may finally break this particular habit. It’s been fascinating for me. Hopefully it’s been equally interesting for you.

We Develop Strings of Habits

In last week’s column, I talked about environmental cueing and reinforcement. Here, cues in our environment (the ubiquitous toolbar search box, for example) trigger a habit, and the expected outcome (the delivery of relevant results) reinforces the habit. This creates a sustaining cycle.

But there’s one other aspect of habits that we should look at. We tend to develop habits as strings of events. One environment cue might trigger a series of actions. The classic example is those who need a cigarette when they have a drink. Some recent research paints a fairly bleak picture of North American society and shows how obsessed we are with habit-inducing cues. The “why” question poised was why French people were less obese than Americans, despite a diet high in fat. It turns out one major reason why is that Americans let external cues, such as which TV show is on, drive their eating patterns. We always have a bowl of Chunky Chocolate ice cream while we watch “Desperate Housewives.” The French tend to eat when they’re hungry, and stop eating when they’re full. For the French, eating is a joy. For Americans, it’s a habit.

Swimming Upstream

As I mentioned before, to break a habit, you have to intercept before the habitual behavior, rather than try to educate and modify after the fact. And the less thought required to execute the behavior, the harder the habit will be to break. If your habit takes a few seconds to do, the opportunities to intercept and kick in the rational brain are minimal. This provides a distinct challenge to anyone looking to usurp Google’s search crown. Searching is becoming easier than ever.

The competitors have to look at that split second that exists between the awareness of the need for more information and the instinctive move to the nearest search box to launch the query. It’s in that tiny sliver of time that the opportunity to break the Google habit exists.

Searchis Interruptis

So, given the fleeting nature of this opportunity, how do you grab it? One way is to anticipate the need of search before it happens. This is the implicit query work that Microsoft was experimenting with sometime ago. As you work on a task, potential search queries are monitored in the background and are presented to the user. But a constantly shifting window of potential searches would probably drive us all batty.

Another way is to integrate search at an application or OS level, making search even easier and inserting a habit-breaking context switch into that tiny sliver of indecision that exists between awareness and Google.

Attack the Weakest Links

But even integration of search at this level won’t be enough. Remember, we tend to give the advantage to the incumbent. We actively look for reasons to maintain the habit, and we ignore information that runs counter to our habitual choice. Even if a search alternative is one click less to get to, that alternative still has to provide a significant reason to switch. They not only have to beat Google at the game of search, they have to do it in a decisive way. For this reason, a competitor has to attack Google’s user base at the weakest point, the ones that are using Google because it’s handy, not the Google loyalists.

True User-Centricity

This brings us to my last strategy for breaking the Google habit: a truly user-centric search tool.

Up to this point, verticalization in search has taken one of two forms. Either engines have attacked a topic category (i.e. Business.com and B2B, Lawyers.com and legal services, Expedia.com and travel) or a type of content (i.e. Blinkx and Youtube for video, Technorati for blog posts). These approaches tend to be vulnerable because we are creatures of habit. Generally, we prefer to use one place to launch our searches. We’re already using Google for most of our searches, so if it can provide an equivalent experience to these vertical engines, it can quickly assimilate the traffic and squeeze the verticals out.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Google has yet to provide an equivalent experience in most of its verticals, but now that it appears that the default design of the search results page is no longer a sacred cow, I would expect the functionality gap to close quickly.

But what if we took a different approach? What if rather than verticalizing around a topic or content bucket, we verticalized around a type of user? What if we maximized the search experience for millennial males or female baby boomers? The verdict on personalized search seems to be that a one-size-fits-all solution is a long way off on the horizon, but an intermediate step might be to tailor an engine for a segment that shares similar needs and expectations. By focusing on a niche strategy, you might be able to break the Google habit, one segment at a time. In this way, you might be able to provide the discontinuous innovation needed to catch people upstream, before they get swept away with the Google tide.

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