Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, I've spent the past day and a half with a large variety of young people whose ages range from 11 to 22 years old. The various conversations I've participated in and overheard have cemented some thoughts I've had about competition in the consumer software game.

This series of thoughts started with a conversation I had with someone who works on MSN Windows Live Search. We talked about the current focus we have on 'relevance' when it comes to our search engine. I agree that it's great to have goals around providing users with more relevant results but I think this is just a one [small] part of the problem. Google rose to prominence by providing a much better search experience than anyone else around. I think it's possible to build a search engine that is as good as Google's. I also think its possible to build one that is a little better than they are at providing relevant search results. However I strongly doubt that we'll see a search engine much better than Google's in the near future. I think that in the near future, what we'll see is the equivalent of Coke vs. Pepsi. Eventually, will we see the equivalents the Pepsi Challenge with regards to Web search engines? Supposedly, the Pepsi challenge shows that people prefer Pepsi to Coke in a blind taste test. However the fact is Coca Cola is the world's #1 soft drink, not Pepsi. A lot of this is due to Coke's branding and pervasive high quality advertising, not the taste of their soft drink. 

Google's search engine brand has gotten to the point where it is synonymous with Web search in many markets. With Google, I've seen a 7-year old girl who was told she was being taken to the zoo by her parents, rush to the PC to 'Google' the zoo to find out what animals she'd see that day. That's how pervasive the brand is.It's like the iPod and portable MP3 players. People ask for iPods for Xmas not MP3 players. When I get my next portable MP3 player, I'll likely just get a video iPod without even bothering to research the competition. Portable audio used to be synonymous with the Sony Walkman until the game changed and they got left behind. Now that portable audio is synonymous with MP3 players, it's the Apple iPod. I don't see them being knocked off their perch anytime soon unless another game changing transition occurs.

So what does this mean for search engine competition and Google? Well, I think increasing a search engine's relevance to become competitive with Google's is a good goal but it is a route that seems guaranteed to make you the Pepsi to their Coke or the Burger King to their McDonalds. What you really need is to change the rules of the game, the way the Apple iPod did.

The same thing applies to stuff I work on in my day job. Watching an 11-year old spend hours on  MySpace and listening to college sorority girls talk about how much they use The Facebook, I realize we aren't just competing with other software tools and trying to build more features. We are competing with cultural phenomena. The MSN Windows Live Messenger folks have been telling me this about their competition with AOL Instant Messenger in the U.S. market and I'm beginning to see where they are coming from. 


Friday, November 25, 2005 11:51:16 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Or maybe the secret is just not to suck?


I've had similar problems too many times to count. Hotmail is truly pathetic. Omar Shahine and his ilk are doing blue-sky BS with Kahuna while the service itself sucks big-time. You say "We're working on it" but you never seem to deliver. What would be nice is if you fixed the damn thing.

Meanwhile I've happily transferred to GMail and loads of my (non-geek) friends have done the same even without me asking them to.

Hot air and babbling about disruptive innovations won't make the servers any more solid. Go ahead and spout your pseudo-MBA nonsense if you must but please could you occasionally actually fix the crap that MSN produces.
Saturday, November 26, 2005 12:27:37 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Well first, really quick, I have to throw one nitpick in: Coke doesn’t actually win because of branding anymore. If you look at Supermarket sales vs. Fountain (Fast Food/Convenience store) sales you’ll see that Pepsi almost universally outsells coke in the market (there are, last I checked, only 2 states where that is not the case) but Coke has fought for and successfully defended a much higher percentage of the Fountain sales (in no small part because Pepsico didn’t initially spin off it’s fast food chains allowing coke to use the “giving your competitors money” line).

Anyway, I think your branding is important but perhaps not as much as you think it is. Palm shared the same advantages of the iPod at one time, having their name become synonymous with the product category. But eventually Microsoft managed to turn it in to a commodity and brand just didn’t matter anymore. People still call their PocketPCs “Palm” but it isn’t doing Palm any good these days.

In other words, people don’t necessarily attach the brand to the product in the way we think they do, eventually the names just becomes a euphemism of sorts. People still call generic sticky notes post-its, tissues are still known as Kleenex, and people buy Vons “grain nuggets” at the store but ask people to pass the “grapenuts” at the table.

MSN will take over when it provides a better service, simple as that. When they do that, early adopters will start telling their less inclined friends to try MSN and if it provides better service, those people will stick with it. They may still call it “googling it” but that makes little difference if they know to go to MSN for better results.
Sunday, November 27, 2005 1:36:13 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
As someone pointed out, Google's attitude to advertising is like a sensible drug dealer's attitude to heroin: they sell the stuff, but don't use it themselves. Google doesn't advertise.

This goes against the conventional marketing wisdom that careful control of your branding and image is essential.

So, I don't think branding is very important to Google, nor are they very vulnerable on it. It's the ease of use and quality of their service that are important.

I suspect you're right and that Google will eventually become a generic term for searching, if it hasn't already.

Also, given its desktop near-monopoly, I don't think Microsoft has to actually provide a better service than Google to take over. All they have to do is provide a service that's not blatantly inferior, then shove enough MSN search boxes, shortcuts, icons, hotkeys and default behaviours into IE and Windows that Microsoft search becomes the easiest option.
Monday, November 28, 2005 3:56:56 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Just a thought on branding... When I first started working with my current employer,(7 years ago) I had to gauge our user's experience with Internet. When I used the terms browsing, World Wide Web or the "Internet", no one quite knew what I was talking about. I soon realized I had to use the term "AOL" when I talked about the Internet. And to this day (here at work), "AOL" is the web to many users...

There's also some interesting statistics on online usage and pursuits among adults and teens over at the "Pew Internet & American Life Project".

Bob Campbell
Monday, November 28, 2005 6:41:16 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
First, I think there is one obvious, huge way to make a better search engine: take into account where the searcher goes.

Second, the Coke/Pepsi thing makes sense from a taste perspective. A one-time taste test will obviously favor the mosr sugary beverage. But if you're drinking the stuff on an ongoing basis, you will prefer the less sugary option.
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