The Psychology of Usefulness: How We Made Google a Habit

In the last two posts, I looked first at the difference between autotelic and exotelic activities, then how our brain judges the promise of usefulness. In today’s post, I want to return to the original question: How does this impact user loyalty? As we use more and more apps and destinations that rely on advertising for their revenues, this question becomes more critical for those apps and destinations.

The obvious example here is search engines, the original functional destination. Google is the king of search, but also the company most reliant on these ads. For Google, user loyalty is the difference between life and death. In 2012, Google made a shade over 50 billion dollars (give or take a few hundred million). Of this, over $43 billion came from advertising revenue (about 86%) and of that revenue, 62% came from Google’s own search destinations. That a big chunk of revenue to come from one place, so user loyalty is something that Google is paying pretty close attention to.

Now, let’s look at how durable that hold Google has on our brains is. Let’s revisit the evaluation cascade that happens in our brain each time we contemplate a task:

  • If very familiar and highly stable, we do it by habit
  • If fairly familiar but less stable, we do it by a memorized procedure with some conscious guidance
  • If new and unfamiliar, we forage for alternatives by balance effort required against

Not surprisingly, the more our brain has to be involved in judging usefulness, the less loyal we are. If you can become a habit, you are rewarded with a fairly high degree of loyalty. Luckily for Google, they fall into this category – for now. Let’s look at little more at how Google became a habit and what might have to happen for us to break this habit.

Habits depend on three things: high repetition, a stable execution environment and consistently acceptable outcomes. Google was fortunate enough to have all three factors present.

First – repetition. How many times a day do you use a search engine? For me, it’s probably somewhere between 10 and 20 times per day. And usage of search is increasing. We search more now than we did 5 years ago. If you do something that often throughout the day it wouldn’t make much sense to force your brain to actively think it’s way through that task each and every time – especially if the steps required to complete that task don’t really change that much. So, the brain, which is always looking for ways to save energy, records a “habit script” (or, to use the terminology of Ann Graybiel – “chunks”) that can play out without a lot of guidance. Searching definitely meets the requirements for the first step of forming a habit.

Second – stability. How many search engines do you use? If you’re like the majority of North Americans, you probably use Google for almost all your searches.  This introduces what we would call a stable environment. You know where to go, you know how to use it and you know how to use the output. There is a reason why Google is very cautious about changing their layout and only do so after a lot of testing. What you expect and what you get shouldn’t be too far apart. If it is, it’s called disruptive, and disruption breaks habits. This is the last thing that Google wants.

Third – acceptable outcomes. So, if stability preserves habits, why would Google change anything? Why doesn’t Google’s search experience look exactly like it did in 1998 (fun fact – if you search Google for “Google in 1998” it will show you exactly what the results page looked like)? That would truly be stable, which should keep those all important habits glued in place. Well, because expectations change. Here’s the thing about expected utility – which I talked about in the last post. Expected utility doesn’t go away when we form a habit, it just moves downstream in the process. When we do a task for the first time, or in an unstable environment, expected utility precedes our choice of alternatives. When a “habit script” or “chunk” plays out, we still need to do a quick assessment of whether we got what we expected. Habits only stay in place if the “habit script” passes this test. If we searched for “Las Vegas hotels” and Google returned results for Russian borscht, that habit wouldn’t last very long.  So, Google constantly has to maintain this delicate balance – meeting expectations without disrupting the user’s experience too much. And expectations are constantly changing.

Internet adoption over time chartWhen Google was introduced in 1998, it created a perfect storm of habit building potential. The introduction coincided with a dramatic uptick in adoption of the internet and usage of web search in particular.  In 1998, 36% of American adults were using the Internet (according to PEW). In 2000, that had climbed to 46% and by 2001 that was up to 59%. More of us were going online, and if we were going online we were also searching.  The average searches per day on Google exploded from under 10,000 in 1998 to 60 million in 2000 and 1.2 billion in 2007. Obviously, we were searching  – a lot – so the frequency of task prerequisite was well in hand.

Now – stability. In the early days of the Internet, there was little stability in our search patterns. We tended to bounce back and forth between a number of different search engines. In fact, the search engines themselves encouraged this by providing “Try your search on…” links for their competitors (an example from Google’s original page is shown below). Because our search tasks were on a number of different engines, there was no environmental stability, so no chance for the creation of a true task. The best our brains could do at this point was store a procedure that required a fair amount of conscious oversight (choosing engines and evaluating outcomes). Stability was further eroded by the fact that some engines were better at some types of searches than others. Some, like Infoseek, were better for timely searches due to their fast indexing cycles and large indexes. Some, like Yahoo, were better at canonical searches that benefited from a hierarchal directory approach. When searching in the pre-Google days, we tended to match our choice of engine to the search we were doing. This required a fairly significant degree of rational neural processing on our part, precluding the formation of a habit.


But Google’s use of PageRank changed the search ballgame dramatically. Their new way of determining relevancy rankings was consistently better for all types of searches than any of their competitors. As we started to use Google for more types of searches because of their superior results, we stopped using their competitors. This finally created the stability required for habit formation.

Finally, acceptable outcomes. As mentioned above, Google came out of the gate with outcomes that generally exceeded our expectations, set by the spotty results of their competitors. Now, all Google had to do to keep the newly formed habit in place was to continue to meet the user’s expectations of relevancy. Thanks to truly disruptive leap Google took with the introduction of PageRank, they had a huge advantage when it came to search results quality. Google has also done an admirable job of maintaining that quality over the past 15 years. While the gap has narrowed significantly (today, one could argue that Bing comes close on many searches and may even have a slight advantage on certain types of searches) Google has never seriously undershot the user’s expectations when it comes to providing relevant search results. Therefore, Google has never given us a reason to break our habits. This has resulted in a market share that has hovered over 60% for several years now.

When it comes to online loyalty, it’s hard to beat Google’s death grip on search traffic. But, that grip may start to loosen in the near future. In my next post, I’ll look the conditions that can break habitual loyalty, again using Google as an example. I’ll also look at how our brains decide to accept or reject new useful technologies.

One thought on “The Psychology of Usefulness: How We Made Google a Habit

  1. Pingback: The Psychology of Usefulness – Part Five: A Recap | Out of My Gord

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