Breaking the Google habit

People use the search champion out of habit, so competitors that want to displace Google need to feed customers a different way of thinking and behaving.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Cuil, the new and "improved" search engine created by Google veterans, has failed abysmally to make a dent against its alma mater, Google, according to TechCrunch. Clearly something other than a full-frontal assault is going to be needed to displace Google as the search leader.

ComScore's November search rankings

But why is Google the search leader?

Tim O'Reilly points to Google PageRank as the "Google's breakthrough in search" that "quickly made it the undisputed search market leader." Maybe, but consumers don't think that way. My parents' use of Google actually has little to nothing to do with the quality of the search.

I'm not sure any of ours does, ultimately. I've spent the last two days tinkering with searches on Microsoft Live Search, Google, and Yahoo, and on a pure quality basis it's hard to tell the three apart. I'm sure some objective science could be made of Google's superiority, but that's not how people search. If you're looking for "table salt" on Google, how do you know that the results returned are better than those on Yahoo? Answer: you don't.

In fact, the times that I can't find something with a search engine have much more to do with the quality of my search terms than with the quality of the algorithms informing the search, and no search engine really helps much with prodding quality search terms. How could they?

Ultimately, then, I think we use Google out of habit, not superior search. For most of us, it's the search engine to which our trusted computer adviser pointed us, and we've never looked back. Why would we? Because we don't have any way of independently verifying that a competitor would give us better search results, there really is no justification for switching.

So, Google is a habit. But it's not one that Google is willing to lackadaisically take for granted. Instead, it is building all sorts of ancillary value (Gmail, Picasa, etc.) which by themselves provide little add-on revenue opportunity but ensure that when we search, we never have reason to look beyond Google, its cash cow.

All of which means that much as Google has learned from the disruptive Web, it has perhaps learned more from the desktop. Microsoft, king of the desktop, makes comparatively little from its businesses outside of Windows and Office, but all the add-on value ensures that the vast majority keep feeding its cash cows to the tune of billions in profits every quarter. Microsoft is a habit, too. People could fairly easily switch to Linux and OpenOffice, but they don't. The bother of change doesn't outweigh the ease of habit.

The only way to displace Google in search may well be to follow Apple's approach to displacing Microsoft on the desktop: change the game. Apple turned the desktop business into a creative/entertainment pursuit, blending the desktop (iLife suite of products, plus extensions of the desktop like the iPhone and iPod) with the cloud (iTunes, App Store). Apple has a long way to go, but it's taking market share from Microsoft at a respectable clip.

In other words, for competitors looking to kick the Google search habit, you can't take the Cuil route and compete on search. It just won't matter if you're better. You need to create a different, compelling habit.