Could Google Get MySpaced Like Friendster?

Search Space Not Immune to Lessons of History: Strong Brands Have Been Toppled Before

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Brian Sheehan
Brian Sheehan

Any way you look at it, Google is a powerhouse. It's the world's best search engine -- simple, fast and relevant. In YouTube it also owns the site that originates the second-most search queries. Its market share increased again in 2008, and it has so badly outflanked its largest competitor that Yahoo's highest hope for securing its future revenue was to have Google sell its ad space. Google is a company that is built to last, branching and pruning its business with a never-ending series of beta tests that allow it to grow and constantly evolve.

What could go wrong? The answer is: a lot. And it could go wrong very quickly. Look to history for the evidence.

Lessons from social networks
In his book, "Marketing to the Social Web," Larry Weber tells the in-depth story of how the groundbreaking and fast-growing social-networking site Friendster became so obsessed with growth and new products that it took its eye off the ball -- namely, the quality and usability of the core product. Along came MySpace, and Friendster, for all intents and purposes, is now history. Similarly, MySpace has become so commercial that Facebook now signs up more new members every month, even though it is No. 2 in the U.S. market.

Outside of cyberspace, you need look only as far as Starbucks to see a company that was so focused on growth and new products that it took its eye off the ball. If you had a choice today between taking a Starbucks franchise or a Dunkin' Donuts franchise, chances are you would opt for Dunkin'.

That brings us back to Google. In order for Google to lose its footing, it is probably not enough for it to be distracted by growth. It will take a new search product that works better or delivers more-relevant results.

Social search developments
These products exist. Potential claimants to the search throne include audio- and video-driven search; search that personalizes based on your preferences, such ChoiceStream, with the added benefit of tying into your DVR; and search engines that cluster results instead of just listing them. But the area to really watch is a set of search products based on social networking. These products focus on search as a social function rather than an algorithm. Search results come from people like you who have used the products and services you are searching for, not from a computer sifting through information. The results are just as fast, but they are significantly more useful and relevant. The search is also a lot more fun. If one thing can be said about Google, despite its functionality, it is a bit dull. Any search based on local knowledge, such as looking for the best Japanese restaurant in town or a product you are trying for the first time, is significantly enhanced by social search.

According to Robb Fujioka, chairman of Fuhu, a web-development company that is breaking new ground in social search: "Search aided by a social interaction or a social connection is a paradigm shift in search -- primarily because it does what everyone wants: It delivers 'human context' and therefore increased relevance. For example, when you ask a friend to recommend a restaurant, they consider your age, gender, ethnicity (demographics), where you live, what you both like in common, and because of your shared demographics, they give you information only another human could give you ... shared human contextual information. This type of search is what the internet was created for ... connecting people with like interests."

New competitive products are not the only reason to believe Google's position is anything but impregnable and may be downright fragile. The main reason is the speed at which usage of web software tips. Think about how quickly Netscape went from being a dominant player with a runaway stock price to being dead. Look at how quickly its attacker, Microsoft Explorer, was under siege from the likes of Safari and Firefox. Think about how quickly AltaVista faded to the background and how quickly Yahoo started showing cracks. The internet ushered in the law of acceleration. Once something takes hold, it takes hold fast -- forget the adaption curve. The reality is today's internet users have been conditioned to move on to the next new thing at a moment's notice without a pang of nostalgia or regret. With over 90% of search users habitually using only one or two search engines, a shift could be quick and massive. As Malcolm Gladwell taught us in "The Tipping Point," small changes in a system can act like a virus, leading to massive and immediate changes.

Strong brands toppled
Critics of this point of view may say that Google is more than a search engine; it is a brand -- and a power brand at that. Yet, for a hundred years, the marketing landscape has been littered with the hulks of former power brands. Oxydol, Wheaties and Oldsmobile were once power brands. More recently, Ford Taurus was the most dominant car brand in the country, outselling all other cars for four years running. Today, Taurus is a reclamation project. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that Taurus' downfall was due to Detroit's quality problems coming home to roost, but the biggest reason was that a change in Taurus' styling missed the mark with their consumers. Success led to hubris, and Ford took its eyes off the ball. Suddenly, other cars looked better.

Brian Sheehan spent 25 years at Saatchi & Saatchi, the last nine years as chairman-CEO of Team One Advertising in Los Angeles. In 2008, he became associate professor of advertising at Syracuse University.

Now, Google is not Ford. But looking closer to Google's category, consider the Sony PlayStation 3. By any account its predecessor, PlayStation 2, was a monster hit. It was the all-time best-seller, selling more than 115 million units. Within a matter of only months, PlayStation was an also-ran, outflanked by Wii -- a brand that didn't exist a few months before -- and doomed by its misunderstanding of the experience its consumers wanted. Wii made gaming more fun, while PlayStation 3 focused on high-tech extras. Like Wii, the social web can make search more fun, relevant and productive. Google could look moribund or me-too very quickly.

Just recently, Microsoft announced a five-year deal with Verizon to be the default search provider on the wireless carrier's phones. With projections indicating most people worldwide will access the internet via mobile by 2020, and more than 140 million Americans by 2013, this was something Google could not afford to miss out on if it wants to maintain its dominant share. Is it possible within a few years -- or even a year -- that Google will not even be a top-five search engine? It is very possible.

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