Don’t Crown Google Yet – The Rules of Engagement are Still Being Determined

First published May 15, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

According to an article in the Financial Times, the search war is already over. Google’s won. Everyone else can go home now. Microhoo was the last potential challenger, and now that that deal is in shambles, the victory has been ceded to the search empire of Mountain View. Even fellow Search Insider Aaron Goldman has been searching for a Google Killer, and so far hasn’t found one. I myself said Google was going to be an extremely hard habit to break (in five parts, no less).

It’s true that these are dark times for desktop search. There is barely a whisper of resistance to the Google juggernaut. But to declare unconditional victory is a little premature. As Google itself is fond of saying, we’ve barely begun to play the search game. To declare it won now would probably be as myopic as awarding the crown to AltaVista in 1997. True, Google has a huge head start, but we’re not even sure which route the race will take.

Microhoo never could have won…

I’ve never been a fan of Microhoo. I think the acquisition would have been a huge mistake. The strategy seemed to be that by tying two sinking boats together, you could somehow catch Google. But the outcome was inevitable. Both Microsoft and Yahoo have fundamental issues in corporate direction and strategy, cultural cohesiveness and respect for their users. They have to get their own houses in order before they can challenge anyone. Putting two dysfunctional families together doesn’t make things any better. It just doubles the number of people yelling at each other. If the Microhoo deal had flown, it would have blown up in under a year. Google would have won regardless.

I’m not sure where Google’s competition is going to come from, but based on what I’m seeing (and the unfortunate Ballmer video that David Berkowitz made me aware of) it’s not Microsoft or Yahoo. In their hearts, they’ve already given up on Web search and are hoping to use ad networks as the next battleground.

Against the Rising Consumer Tide

Giving up on search and falling back on ad networks is monumentally stupid. I’ve said this so many times I can’t believe I have to keep repeating it, but I will. Ad networks are firmly rooted in yesterday. They’re an extension of an advertising mentality that’s based on disrupting prospects and keeping control in the hands of the marketer. Search propelled Google to its current status because it’s a discontinuous innovation. It’s customer-initiated marketing, marketing rooted in tomorrow, where the prospect is in control. By focusing on ad networks, you’re ignoring the voice of billions of consumers that have already spoken loud and clear. Yes, you can target. Yes, you can segment. Yes, it’s a whole new take on marketing, but it’s still marketing. It’s not innovative or paradigm breaking.

So, if we ignore search for a minute, and think about other ways that customers can exercise this control, we start to understand how vast the potential is. Mobile is often touted as The Next Big Thing, and I tend to agree. But really, mobile is just one channel. The really big thing is that now the masses have control, and they will exercise it. The winners will be the ones that figure out new and innovative ways for consumers to do so — and that requires a different kind of thinking. That, first of all, requires acceptance of the power shift. Ironically, Google started here, but the user-side focus is becoming a little blurry with the acquisition of DoubleClick. There is a mix of religions now in Mountain View, so even the Googleplex is starting to have signs of dysfunction.

Just When You Least Expect It

I think Google’s competition will come from the same place Google did. It will sneak out of nowhere. It won’t come from the stuck-in-yesterday mind ruts of Microsoft. It won’t come from the desperation of Yahoo. It will come from someone small enough, visionary enough, obsessive enough and ballsy enough to still do great things, without those great things being picked to death at the boardroom table. But, even here, Google might still win. Google’s greatest success came from not being swallowed by one of its competitors too soon, because no one was smart enough to recognize the threat. Despite Google’s not insignificant hubris, I think its executives are still able to recognize when their lunch is in danger of being eaten.

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