The True Meaning of Awesome

My Uncle Al and I - 1963

My Uncle Al and I – 1963

My Uncle Al passed away today. I wish you could have known him.

Al loved gadgets and technology. He was an early adopter for his entire life. He helped me set up my first stereo (complete with 8 Track player). He had his own email domain. And he loved Facebook. If we posted a picture of our kids, or ourselves – or pretty much anything – he always left the same comment….

“Awesome!”

Now, a lot of people use the word awesome. Like many words, it’s power has become diluted through over usage and misuse. But if anyone knew the true meaning of the word awesome, it was my Uncle Al.

The true definition of awesome, the one not corrupted by popular usage, is this:

causing or inducing awe; inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear

When my Uncle Al used the word “awesome” I think that is how he meant it.

For instance – “awesome” as in “awesome responsibility” – a responsibility so great that it can crush some people. A responsibility that is so heavy that you may be tempted to just set it down now and again. But Al never did.

I know Al because of my father (he’s not a biological uncle – he’s an honourary one). They became friends about 55 years ago. They met at the church where my father was volunteering as a faith instructor. Al was looking to join the congregation. They soon became inseparable friends.

At the age of 27, my father had to have back surgery. Uncle Al visited him in his hospital room and made a promise – “Bill, I will always look after your family if anything happens.” Of course, at 27 neither of them expected anything to really happen. But it did. Dad developed a blood clot and passed away, leaving behind my Mom and I. I was one.

Now, the promise Al made could easily have been forgotten. Al would have been in his early 20’s at the time. No one would have expected him shoulder the “awesome” responsibility of looking after a grief-stricken widow and her young son. But Al did. For 53 years. Through all the ups and downs of our subsequent lives. Al was always there – helping, supporting, guiding. He was our rock. Not once did he put down the weight of the promise he had made. Just last fall, he was there, lifting appliances and loading furniture on a truck to help me move my Mom and Step-dad into a new home. Now, I know he was already suffering from the condition that would ultimately take his life, but he never slowed down. Not once. Not ever. Al had made an promise and he was going to keep it.

Al had an “awesome” sense of family. He revered family. His love of family knew no boundaries. It extended to his children, his wife, his siblings and to an extended family of which I was honoured to become part of. He and my Auntie Yvonne raised many, many foster children. He adopted dozens of honorary nephews and nieces, including my sisters and – eventually – my wife and children. For Al, there was no division between blood and love. We were all his children, whether or not we shared DNA.

Al worshiped family. He was never happier than in the buzz and give-and-take energy of a family gathering. Just yesterday, as Al lay in his hospital bed, edging nearer to the threshold between this world and the next, we surrounded him and shared stories and a few minutes of welcome laughter. I had a slight twinge of guilt, wondering if our behavior was appropriate given the gravity of the situation. Then I realized that Al would have loved the fact that he was in the center of all this. He would have thought it was “awesome.”

Even if you never met Al, by now you know he was an “awesome” father and husband. He was, in the words of his son Gregg, “the best man I have ever known.”  And much as we all grieve as we were forced to say goodbye far too soon, I cannot imagine the loss that is being shouldered by his soulmate – my Aunt Yvonne.

“Soulmate” – there’s another of those words that has had it’s meaning muddied because of overuse. But, if ever there were soulmates, it was my Uncle Al and Aunt Yvonne. To all of us, it was as if they were fused into one soul-entwined incredibly caring entity – known as “Al and Yvonne.” In my life, they were my constant – my polestar – my compass bearing. They were a source of unconditional love and comfort. To me, although the physical composition has been forced to change, they will always be “Al and Yvonne” – because Al will live on in the most real of senses through Yvonne. She will remain the caretaker of his soul, because they have been spiritually attached for almost 6 decades now.

So, when my Uncle Al used the word “awesome” – it was with a full appreciation of the word’s power. It captured the reverence, the admiration and sometimes, the fear that comes with awe. He lived his life in an “awesome” manner, whether it be with his responsibilities, his faith, his love or his appreciation. He never slowed down. He gave everything he had to give. He infused all of us with his sense of “awe.”

My Dad

My Dad- Bill Hotchkiss

When things became dark early this week, I took a picture of my dad to watch over Al. The picture reflected the spirit they both shared – full of life, love and laughter. For my dad, he got to share this with Al for far too short a time. But Al also carried the spirit of my father and through him, I got to know my dad a little better. Late last night, my father was there as a guide when Al slipped from this world.

I know how Al will describe his new adventure. It will be “awesome.”

 

 

 

The Psychology of Social: Are We Hardwired to Use Social Media?

Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. 

Aristotle

I’ve looked at online entertainment and I’ve looked at online tools, both in a quest to see where loyal and stable audiences might be found. But that leaves one huge part of the online landscape unexplored – online social media. In both my previous explorations, the scope of the quest quickly exploded into several posts. I think social media will be as difficult to restrict to a few posts, if not more so.

One thing that both entertainment and usefulness had in common was their foundation – our human drives. In any area I’ve explored up to now, I’ve always found our interactions with technology, as fickle as they may be, are layered over innate human drives with origins reaching back several thousands of generations. In entertainment, although the channels may have changed drastically in the past few decades (digital media, video games, virtual environments), our responses are predictably human. The things that make us cry, jump in our seats or laugh out loud really haven’t changed that much in many thousands of years. Humans adapt quickly to new technology, but our tastes remain reliably consistent.

Usefulness is a little different. In this case, our expectations of utility and the ever-rising bar of technology form somewhat of an arms race, with each upping the ante for the other. New tools allow us to do new things, which reset our expectations. These reset expectations cause us to periodically review the tools we use, and if they no longer match our expectations, we go looking for new tools. But even if we’re on the hunt for increased usefulness, we still use strategies that appear to have evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago on the savannah. I believe we forage for and evaluate useful technologies the same way we forage for food. This means that while technologies may change quickly, our behaviors towards them are remarkably predictable.

20090921_social_connectionsSo, what should we expect as we explore how the human need for society plays out in new online arenas? Again, I think it’s safe to say that our behaviors will be driven by innate human needs and strategies. So that seems to be as good a place as any to start.

In their book “Driven, How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices,” Harvard professors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria tried to reduce human nature down to the lowest possible number of non-redundant factors. They came up with four irreducible drives:

  • The Need to Acquire
  • The Need to Bond
  • The Need to Learn
  • The Need to Defend

All human actions, all cultural trends, all societal behaviors will be driven by one or a combination of these factors. If Lawrence and Nohria are right, then the usage of social media should be no exception. Let’s look at the four to see how they might map onto social media usage.

The Need to Bond

I’ll start with the most obvious one – the need to Bond. Social media is all about bonding. This hits squarely at the heart of our social nature. As Aristotle said, we’re not built to be alone. Humans thrive in herds. And social media provides us a digitally mediated way to bond.

The complexity of our social bonds are staggering. It’s amazing to think of all the dimensions we impose on our social relationships. Things like status, gossip, empathy, reciprocity, jealousy, xenophobia, admiration, loyalty, love, hate and so many other emotionally charged factors constantly occupy our mind as we try to navigate the stormy waters of our social connections. One might be tempted to throw up our hands in frustration and live in social isolation, but we don’t. Why? Because evolution has proven conclusively that we’re better together than apart. That strategy has been hardwired into our genes. As much as maintaining a social network is a complete pain in the ass sometimes, it’s a necessary part of the human experience. Most times, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

The challenge, however, is that all this baggage will be hauled over to whatever new platforms we use to connect with others. This includes online social media. To be effective and engaging, a social media tool has to allow us to do the things we have always done to survive and thrive in our respective herd – whether it’s to increase the frequency of connection with family, gossip in real-time, brag more effectively to all of our acquaintances at once or reconnect with those that lie in the more out flung regions of our networks. While they’re all very human, these activities, when brought on to a publishing platform (which is a major feature of all social media) introduces a significant signal to noise issue.

The Need to Acquire

While we don’t usually acquire physical things through social media, we sure as hell use it to brag about the things we do acquire in the real world. A unhealthy proportion of social media activity is devoted to the acquisition of new cars, clothes, jewelry, trips, houses, boats – you name it, we tweet (or Facebook, or Instagram) about it. The arms race of social status is being waged daily on social media.

The Need to Learn

One of the biggest reasons why humans became social animals is that it was a much more efficient way to learn. In a herd, we don’t have to learn every lesson ourselves – we can learn from the experiences of other. Of course, that requires a way for lessons to spread throughout our networks. Stories, gossip, rumors – these are all social forms of information transmission. And they have all migrated onto our digital social media platforms.

The Need to Defend

This is probably the least social of Nohria and Lawrence’s Four Drives, at least as it might apply to use of social media. Humans need to defend ourselves, our kin, our community (or tribe, or nation) our possessions, our reputation, our status, our beliefs and our security. But, like all the drives, the need to defend, especially the defense of our beliefs, status or reputation, does play out in the online forum as well.

When looked at in the context of these four innate drives, it’s clear that the use of social media aligns well with our evolved requirements. It is just another channel we can use to let our pre-wired social tendencies play out. So, it passes the first gut-test. This is something we would do naturally, with or without the tools of social media. The next question is, how might our social activities change, for the good and the bad, when they’re mediated through digital channels? I’ll come back here in the next post.

 

Bounded Rationality in a World of Information

First published October 11, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider.  

Humans are not good data crunchers. In fact, we pretty much suck at it. There are variations to this rule, of course. We all fall somewhere on a bell curve when it comes to our sheer rational processing power. But, in general, we would all fall to the far left of even an underpowered laptop.

Herbert Simon

Herbert Simon

Herbert Simon recognized this more than a half century ago, when he coined the term “bounded rationality.”  In a nutshell, we can only process so much information before we become overloaded, when we fall back on much more human approaches, typically known as emotion and gut instinct.

Even when we think we’re being rational, logic-driven beings, our decision frameworks are built on the foundations of emotion and intuition. This is not bad. Intuition tends to be a masterful way to synthesize inputs quickly and efficiently, allowing us generally to make remarkably good decisions with a minimum of deliberation. Emotion acts to amplify this process, inserting caution where required and accelerating when necessary. Add to this the finely honed pattern recognition instincts we humans have, and it turns out the cogs of our evolutionary machinery work pretty well, allowing us to adequately function in very demanding, often overwhelming environments.

We’re pretty efficient; we’re just not that rational. There is a limit to how much information we can “crunch.”

So when information explodes around us, it raises a question – if we’re not very good at processing data, what happen when we’re inundated with the stuff? Yes, Google is doing its part by helpfully “organizing the world’s information,” allowing us to narrow down our search to the most relevant sources, but still, how much time are we willing to devote to wading through mounds of data? It’s as if we were all born to be dancers, and now we’re stuck being insurance actuaries. Unlike Heisenberg (sorry, couldn’t resist the “Breaking Bad” reference) – we don’t like it, we’re not very good at it, and it doesn’t make us feel alive.

To make things worse, we feel guilty if we don’t use the data. Now, thanks to the Web, we know it’s there. It used to be much easier to feign ignorance and trust our guts. There are few excuses now. For every decision we have to make, we know that there is information which, carefully analyzed, should lead us to a rational, logical conclusion. Or, we could just throw a dart and then go grab a beer. Life is too short as it is.

When Simon coined the term “bounded rationality,” he knew that the “bounds” were not just the limits on the information available but also the limits of our own cognitive processing power and the limits on our available time. Even if you removed the boundaries on the information available (as is now happening) those limits to cognition and time would remain.

I suspect we humans are developing the ability to fool ourselves that we are highly rational. For the decisions that count, we do the research, but often we filter that information through a very irrational web of biases, beliefs and emotions. We cherry-pick information that confirms our views, ignore contradictory data and blunder our way to what we believe is an informed decision.

But, even if we are stuck with the same brain and the same limitations, I have to admit that the explosion of available information has moved us all a couple of notches to the right on Simon’s “satisficing” curve. We may not crunch all the information available, but we are crunching more than we used to, simply because it’s available.  I guess this is a good thing, even if we’re a little delusional about our own logical abilities.

Reengineering Hiring

First published August 9, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In all my years in business, the one thing I found consistently difficult was hiring good people. We spent a lot of time honing our screening skills, but I sometimes suspect we would have been just as far ahead by flipping a coin.

Over time, we found we achieved pretty good success rates with our lower-level hires, but the one area where consistent success eluded me was in our management recruitment. It seemed that the more senior the position, the worse our track record was. We had a few outright disasters.

When it comes down to it, hiring someone is making a prediction. You examine the evidence and try to foresee if that person will perform at an acceptable level in the position you have vacant. And, as I said in my last column, we humans don’t tend to be very good at making predictions. The more there is at stake in the position to be filled, the worse the consequences if our predictions are faulty. In looking at our past management hires, I realize that it wasn’t that our predictive powers were any less effective, it’s just that the pain of being wrong was more acute.

So, it was with some reassurance and more than a dollop of schadenfreude that I learned that Google has had exactly the same problem. That’s right, Google — the same company that has a zillion brilliant engineers working on every problem known to mankind. But those engineers have to come from somewhere, right? Someone has to hire them. And there, ay, there’s the rub!

In a recent interview in the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, senior vice president for people operations at Google, confessed that Google has tweaked, and, in some cases, massively overhauled its recruitment process.  Take, for example, Google’s famous early predilection for college G.P.A.s. According to Bock, based on actual performance, “G.P.A.s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything.”

Google has also slowly backed away from its ironclad requirement that every hire have a degree. Bock revealed, “The proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14% of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.”

Sometimes, interviewers fall into the trap of over-playing their own cleverness and “expertise.” We spend more time trying to stroke our own ego by staging an impromptu show of power during the interview than in really listening to what the interviewee is saying. Google found that tricks like brainteasers, while they may make the interviewer feel clever, are worthless in screening out duds. The much less flashy but tried-and-true list of standardized behavioral questions (“Give me an example of when you…”) is a far better predictive indicator.

Finally, Bock admits that screening for leadership positions is the most difficult challenge, because leadership is something that defies easy definitions. “We’ve found that leadership is a more ambiguous and amorphous set of characteristics than the work we did on the attributes of good management, which are more of a checklist and actionable.” So you can ask questions, probing for effective leadership, but because leading people tends to fall into the category of ill-defined problems, you often have to do the best job you can in the hiring process, and then track performance religiously. In this case, “slow to hire, quick to fire” is a good principle to follow.

I found Bock’s last words, on the role of Big Data in management decisions, including those involving people’s performance, revealing: “Big Data — when applied to leadership — has tremendous potential to uncover the 10 universal things we should all be doing. But there are also things that are specifically true only about your organization, and the people you have and the unique situation you’re in at that point in time. I think this will be a constraint to how big the data can get because it will always require an element of human insight.”

Search: The Boon or Bane of B2B Marketers

First published February 21, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Optify recently released its 2012 B2B marketing Benchmark Report. While reading the executive summary, two apparently conflicting points jumped out at me: “Google is the single most important referring domain to B2B websites, responsible for over 36% of all visits.”

And: “Paid search usage showed a constant decline among B2B marketers in 2012. Over 10% of companies in the report discontinued their paid search campaigns during 2012.”

OK, what gives? How can search be the single most important referrer of traffic, yet fail so miserably as a marketing channel that many B2B marketers have thrown in the towel?

The fact is, B2B search is a dramatically different beast, and many of the unique nuances that come with it are likely to lead to the apparent paradox that the Optify study unearthed. Here are some possible reasons for the anomaly:

B2B search has a really, really long tail. Many B2B marketers are dealing with a huge variety of SKUs, with a broader distribution of traffic across keywords than is typical in most consumer categories. This makes keyword discovery a monumental task. But more than this, the revenue per managed keyword (assuming you can accurately measure revenue — more on this below) is quite often very small. This creates a cost-of-campaign management issue.

When the “long tail” of search was first introduced, many search marketers embraced it as a cost-effective way to manage campaigns. The assumption was that long-tail queries, being quite specific, would yield higher ROI than shorter, more generic queries. And while the traffic (and subsequent revenue) per keyword would be very small, cumulatively a long-tail campaign could deliver impressive returns.

This is true, up to a point. But long-tail campaigns require significant administrative overhead. A query that gets one search a month requires as much set-up as one that gets 1,500 searches a month. Even if you use broad match, you’re constantly tweaking your negative match list to filter out the low-value traffic.

While a long-tail approach seems like a good idea in theory, in practice most marketers end up culling most of the long-tail keywords from the campaign because the returns just aren’t worth the ongoing effort.  This would not bode well for B2B marketers considering search as a channel.

A B2B search vocabulary is difficult to define. Compounding the long-tail problem is the issue that many B2B vendors sell complex products or services. With complexity comes ambiguity in language. It’s hard to pin many B2B products down to an obvious search phrase you can be sure searchers would use. Often, many B2B prospects only know they have a problem, not what the possible solution might be called. This makes it very difficult to create an effective search campaign. There is a lot of trial and error involved.

And, because prospects aren’t searching for a familiar product from vendors they know, it becomes even more difficult to create a compelling search ad that attracts its fair share of searches and subsequent conversions. In a marketing channel that depends on words to interpret buying intent, ill-defined vocabularies can make a marketer’s job exponentially more difficult.

B2B ROI has to be measured differently. Finally, let’s say you get past the first two obstacles. Ultimately, search campaigns live and die on their effectiveness. And this requires a comprehensive approach to performance measurement. As any B2B marketer will tell you, this is much easier said than done. B2B markets tend to be more circuitous than consumer markets, winding their way through several stops in an extended value change. This makes end-to-end tracking extremely difficult.  And if value isn’t easily measured, search campaigns can’t prove their value. This makes them likely candidates for an unceremonious axing.

So if That’s the Bad News, What’s the Good?

If the deck is stacked so fully against search in the B2B world, why was Google the primary referrer of traffic in the Optify study? Well, search for B2B can be tremendously effective; it’s just hard to predict. This makes B2B a prime candidate for a broad-based SEO effort. Content creation creates a rich bed of long-tail fodder that search spiders love. Organic best practices combined with a dedication to thought leadership can create content that intercepts those prospects looking for a solution to their identified pains, even before they know what they’re looking for.

In the case of B2B, especially in complex, nascent markets, I generally recommend leading with SEO and content development. Then, monitor search traffic and let that help inform your subsequent PPC efforts. It may turn out that paid search isn’t a major play for your market. The B2B Beast can be tamed by search; it just takes a different approach.

Is it Time to Relabel ” Marketing?

First published September 15, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I asked the question, “Is the word ‘search’ the right label for what we do on Google, Bing, Yahoo and other engines?” When Internet search debuted in the early 90s, it was probably pretty accurate. But today, the concept may have passed the label by.

And, if that is true, then the same is probably true for “search marketing.” The main gist of my argument last week was that the word “search” implies the expenditure of a significant effort with no guarantee of a successful outcome. But today, more than ever, we look to these engines to connect us with information and functionality. We want to “do” things when we click through to the other side of the search results.

I also said that it was difficult to find any one label that covers all our intentions when we turn to a “search” engine. In the beginning, when the Web was one large bucket of ill-formed data, “search” worked as a universal label. But that’s not true today. Now, the Web is becoming increasingly structured, and a search engine that excels at bringing order to unstructured data often falls disappointingly short when it comes to actually getting stuff done. In trying to be the universal Swiss Army Knife of the Web for many common tasks, Google (or Bing) doesn’t do any of them particularly well, we’re starting to find.  For many tasks, a dedicated and specialized app often does a far better job of meeting our expectations.

Again, this starts to define the conundrum currently facing search marketers. When the label we used was “search,” our job was simply to make sure our sites were “found.” Within the parameters defined by “searching” (to explore in order to discover), our job was straightforward: reduce the exploration effort required on the part of the searcher by moving our sites into a more “discoverable” position.

But what if we substitute some of the other labels I suggested last week for the word “search”? Suddenly, our job becomes much more complex.

Let’s start with “connection.” In this case, buyer s already have an idea that the right online destination exists, so they also have a preconceived notion of what they would find there. In game theory, this is called “expected utility.” In this case, our job is not simply to make the site easy to find, but also to make sure it’s a relevant match for our prospect’s expectations. If it isn’t, we may capture the click but miss the conversion. And that puts a whole new spin on search marketing. To understand how to create a “connection,” we have to understand what happens on both sides of the click: pre-connection and post-connection.

This requires us to delve into our prospect’s “frame of mind.” Again, the words used here provide a clue for what’s required as a marketer. A “frame” colors our entire view of things. There’s even a term for it in psychology: the “framing effect.” It’s categorized as a cognitive bias, which means that our frames determine our reality. To be successful “connection” marketers, we have to be familiar with our prospect’s “frame” of reference. When we are, we can provide a relevant and persuasive post-click path.

But “connection” wasn’t the only alternative label I proposed. What about “action” or “fulfillment?” Again, both ask us to substantially stretch our horizons as a marketer.

“Action” is an even more determinant label than connection. If we’re looking to take “action,” each step interposed between the end goal and the prospect is another level of frustration. Here, our job as “action” marketers is to remove as many of the steps as possible between intent and action. Actions are usually well defined and specific. We should be equally as specific in the alternatives we provide our prospects. Our calls to action should be a clear invitation to “do” things.

“Fulfillment” is a little tougher nut to crack. To be “fulfilled” can take several forms. Is there an emotional component? How would the prospect define “fulfillment”? Is the post-click result a step towards fulfillment, or does it take a prospect all the way there? A successful “fulfillment” marketer should be part psychologist and part clairvoyant.

Given the challenge we have in even attaching a label to what it is we do, it’s no wonder that recent analyst reports are all reporting a common theme: the best search marketers are expanding into other services. We’re expanding beyond “search” into “social,” “mobile,” “local,” “display” and other channels. It’s not so much that “search” is passé, rather it’s that “search” isn’t really the right label anymore. I’m not sure that “social” or “local” are any better. Personally, I think the perfect word, whatever it turns out to be, should clearly identify “why” people are online rather than “what” they’re doing online.

If I Had $4 Billion: Part Two

First published September 15, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

If you were Google, you had access to $4 billion in cash, and you were taking on Microsoft on their home turf, what would you do?

That was the question I posed to you two weeks ago. Thanks to the many who replied. After sorting through the self-serving e-mails from various CEO’s suggesting that Google should buy their companies, there were some very interesting strategies put forth. Let’s see if they’re listening in Mountain View.

First of all, many of you zeroed in on the operating system as the core of Google’s strategy. Jim Barkow offers up GoOSe..the Google OS: “At the core to their (Google’s) search platform is a very quick file system that was first developed when they couldn’t find one in the market (Linux, MS, etc.) that was fast enough. Interesting that after a long promise, Microsoft supposedly abandoned their plans to ‘upgrade’ their file system for Longhorn and Vista.”

Ironically, on the same day the original column ran, Brooke Dixon pointed me to a post on Gizmodo showing a screen shot of a bare bones Google OS based on GNU/Linux. It would come in three versions: corporate, embedded, and portable. It would allow users to boot and use a stripped-down OS that does what Google does best–manage files.

LionVision joined the chorus with Glinux (or Googlix), offered for a pretty compelling price point. “So Google could GIVE AWAY FOR FREE an OS as well-groomed and clean as apple OSX with all the new cutting edge apps integrated at the OS level. IM and VOIP and Email and Search working from the very roots.”

The Kelsey Group’s own VSG (Very Smart Guy), Greg Sterling, pointed me to a post by Robert Young titled “Google, the Ultimate Deflator” that follows the same reasoning–making the Microsoft OS superfluous by migrating users to an integrated set of Web apps.

Hmmm…an Internet appliance that relies on the computing horsepower of a Web server to do the heavy lifting?

That sounds familiar.

As many pointed out, several have been down this path before, including Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Sun Microsystems. In fact, if memory serves, Microsoft has also been down the road, and put several million into Web appliances and Web-based application service provider technology. Perhaps with broadband proliferation, the idea’s time has finally come.

If this is the case, expect to see some of that $4 billion spent acquiring technology that could create a suite of online apps that would form the foundation of Google’s total solution. Simon Collins suggested likely targets could be contact minders like Plaxo or Linked In, then possibly extending to online data storage, giving users the alternative of a virtual desktop.

Both Nikos Pharmakidis and Andre Morgantetti suggested that Google should take the logical next step down this road and bundle a stripped-down OS and a computer and sell it at a rock bottom price. It’s the cell phone approach to market control. Give away the hardware and make your margins on monthly service fees.

The problem with Google going head to head with Microsoft for the OS is that you’re attacking the Giant right where he lives, so expect a long and heated battle. Others have tried for many years now–and at last count, Apple and Linux combined have managed to capture less than 10 percent of the OS market share. If I was Google and this was my strategy, I wouldn’t be thrilled with my odds. It’s also heavily dependent on users adopting a new way of doing things, so there’s a king-sized chasm to cross.

By the way, speaking of Apple, a few thought Steve Jobs, Larry Page, and Sergei Brin would make an interesting threesome. John Nesbit offered this bold prediction: “Google uses their cash to buy Apple–they are culturally similar in their approach to problems–and then with the new Intel chips that run the Apple OS due out next year they launch a new OS called ‘GO’–Google Operating System”.”

Other readers suggested that rather than attacking Microsoft where they’re dominant, you hit where they’re not the 800-pound gorilla. For example, mobile computing. Shaun Abrahamson says: “Mobile is probably one area where Uncle Bill is not dominant and this might be the place to take the fight, for the next gen of much more dependent users who have devices with them all the time.”

John Reilly sees Google’s battleground shaping up in super MP3 players. “Think of it this way. If you’re an iPod user, wouldn’t adding wireless search, social networking, and other communication functionality be spectacular?

And for Google (and its advertisers), what better way to bring ads and awareness to an already engaged audience?”

Toren Ajk agrees: “We have just begun to tap into the power of devices such as cell phones, MP3 players, game consoles, Tivos, etc. These are no longer business-originated activities (the area Microsoft has chosen to dominate). Entertainment is the primary function of these devices, be it active communication or passive absorption. This is a fundamental shift which makes access the key choke point. These devices don’t need to run through Windows in order to deliver their value, entertainment, to the end user.”

And, as Toren points out, if access is the new choke point, then other recent Google acquisitions may hold the key to their strategy. Pete Neumann warns: “What should be keeping us all awake at night is the fact that Google is buying up the secondary choke points–the onramps to the Internet: dark fiber, wireless networks, broadband over powerline (ConCurrent).”

Roy Moskowitz envisions a low-cost wireless broadband service, bundled with a Google-branded browser. “$1.00 a day and $10 a month for the privilege of being served ads on the Google browser when we connect sounds about right for the service. In contrast, T-mobile charges Starbucks customers $10 for an hour that must be used the same day.”

A few mentioned Google’s interest in NeoMedia as a clue. Their Paperclick technology uses handheld devices to link the world around you to the online world. Capture a barcode or quickly enter a word you see on a product box, billboard, or in-store display, and you’re suddenly linked to a Web site where you can purchase, register, get a rebate or watch a product demonstration.

Jim Barkow, who has friends deeply embedded in Google’s Mountain View brain trust, offers this advice: “Google has an army of the most talented, dedicated, and focused engineers around–and have spent the last few years making sure it was that way. Without a doubt, what they’ve launched so far is not the real goods of what they’ve been working on for the past two years.”

When it’s all said and done, perhaps Terry Weakly should have the last word. “Cash it in and go home…to a really nice home! Let someone else slug it out with Microsloth.”

I’m sure you’d have some takers in the Googleplex Terry, but getting the approval of Google shareholders might be an issue.