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For a long time, the search engine wars were stagnant, but they appear to be heating up again. AskJeeves has launched a redesign, Overture bought AltaVista and the web-search portion of FAST, and MSN is starting to make rumblings about a search overhaul.
And what am I seeing every time I read one of these stories? "Challenge Google," "Rival Google," "Out-Google Google." And every time I hear about new initiatives like these my response is the same:
Why is every search engine out there so revved up to out-Google Google? The Google they aim at today won't be the Google they have to compete against tomorrow. The search tools they offer have a different set of strengths and weaknesses than Google's. Why compete on Google's terms?
When I think about this (and I find myself thinking about this a lot) it strikes me that the things that made Google successful initially were not technical. Yes, Google has great search technology, great algorithms, and so forth. But the average searcher does not care about these.
The average searcher is going to be attracted by a friendly interface and an easy-to-use site. Yes, the average searcher will be thrilled with Google's very relevant results. They may or may not tell their friends about that. It's more likely that they'll get a good laugh out of Google's PigeonRank joke and pass that on to their friends, who in turn can try Google for themselves.
I am very geeky. I do not like dwelling on "touchy-feely" aspects of business. But I am convinced that there are four very important things that have made Google successful, which have little to do with actual technology. Further, as long as we're talking about search engines wanting to "out-Google Google," I also wanted to take a look at ways in which Google could out-Google itself. It's got to evolve sometime, right?
Beyond Technology: What's Made Google Successful?
Yes, the search technology is excellent, and the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button is a stroke of genius. But that's not all there is to search engine success. If it were just the search syntax, AltaVista would still be number one. If it were just the sheer number of pages indexed, wouldn't AlltheWeb and Google be running neck and neck right now with market share? In addition to its technology, Google had several intangibles in its favor.
Google happened on the scene almost at the height of the portal craze. You remember the portal craze, right? That's when practically every search engine out there was offering weather, horoscopes, sports scores, and any other snippets of information that could be tied to a zip code. If you weren't actually focused on getting search results, I suppose these bits of information might have been of interest. But if you actually wanted to get your search and get on with your life, these drags on a page load could be distracting. And I won't even get into the banner ads.
Google's simple front page -- search box, two buttons, and logo -- were a big breath of fresh air. And not a banner ad to be found! It was almost too good to be true! When companies are thinking about out-Googling Google, do you think they're thinking about how to make the interface even faster-loading, even more streamlined, and even more friendly? Or do you think they're thinking about how to look exactly like Google?
A Sense of the Internet's Culture
It's been a source of much frustration to Google watchers everywhere that Google remains a private company. But it's been very good for Google, in my opinion. As a private company, Google can concentrate on its search engine and its associated properties. They don't have to publicly discuss the idea of profit and loss. To all external appearances, they can be just a happy-go-lucky company that really loves Internet searching.
Of course, there are grownups at Google whose job it is to make sure the search engine turns a profit. But since Google is a private company, it doesn't have to present that side of itself. They don't have to go on CNBC and explain their quarterly earnings. They can focus on what they do, and not how much they're earning or what their business model is.
On the other hand, if Google did not have a sense of the Internet's culture, this advantage wouldn't be an advantage. If Google didn't have its corporate culture to talk about, the former chef for the Grateful Dead, the odd logos on holidays, the April Fool's jokes, and so forth, it wouldn't have the mystique, the coolness, that it does. Google, as a whole, has a sense of the culture of the Internet, and its culture blends right in and looks really appealing. Being an east-coaster, I have never visited the Google office, but despite common sense, I imagine it as a 24-hour programming fest with buffet, foosball, and a piped-in soundtrack from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
I can't remember another search engine that has inspired such admiration on a cultural level, except perhaps AltaVista when it was still http://altavista.digital.com. That isn't to say that there weren't good search engines; there was a time when I adored Looksmart (I think it was around 1998), but I never thought, "Wow, Looksmart is cool. It must be really neat to work there." Most other major search engines and up-and-comers are publicly owned; what can they do to compete against the private- company-coolness of Google?
A Willingness to Share
It seems weird to include "A Willingness to Share" as one of Google's traits o' success, because they've been so aggressive about asking users not to scrape their search engine and not to access their index through automated processes.
But look at it another way: Google has been very good about releasing its new services in beta, or even the stuff that its programmers are just fooling around with (via Google Labs). Google's services tend to push toward the end of what's expected in a search engine. And finally, they released the Google API. No, it's not perfect, since it does access a very limited amount of the Google services. It's not finished, either, since it too is in beta. But it is available, and it's a tool that Google enthusiasts can use to build their own tool sets using Google's data, going in all different directions (witness the strange array of materials covered in Google Hacks).
Other search engines have not been as loud in their denunciation of scrapers, but at the same time, they've done little to make their indexes easily accessible to programmers and power users. It's like they developed the search engine for one audience -- a Web surfer -- and had no desire to go further, to see what services could be offered to a power user, a programmer, or a search enthusiast.
A Sense of Humor
If you've ever visited Google on April Fool's Day, you're aware of their sense of humor. There's also been the occasional odd logos that turn up, as well as some of the things in the Google store (a lava lamp? A bean bag chair?).
Now, of course, part of the advantage of the humor is that it fits in easily with the culture of the Internet, as has been mentioned before. But another advantage is that it gives new visitors something to pass along. It's not often that you run a routine search and get a set of search results that make you say, "Wow! I want to pass this set of search results on to all my friends!" On the other hand, when you come across a good online joke you tend to want to share it with other people. Google found a great way to spread memes and attract people to its site.
While other search engines have not been humorless, neither have they often been deliberately funny. I suspect that's more because it's hard to evolve a public sense of humor for a large organization -- things are developed and created by so many people that it's hard for them to maintain the unique voice that a sense of humor requires. AlltheWeb has probably come closest, with its skins contest and the way it presents its search engine.
Giving a large Internet property like one of the major search engines a humorous bent is also something that's very difficult to do -- when a company steps up and says, "From now on we're going to be ZANY and MADCAP and FILLED WITH SMILES!" it usually ends up embarrassing everybody. But if it evolves, and it's allowed to evolve, great.
So I've spent 1,400 words or so looking at the non-technical aspects of what Google did right. Some of the intangible reasons they got to the top. And now that they've got to the top, that's it, right? The Google experience is the pinnacle of everything and cannot be improved upon, right?
Shyeah. C'mon. This is the Internet.