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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Can Google be beat? Is there a brand out there that could possibly topple the giant in Search?

This is a great question and one that Topix CEO Rich Skrenta, recently commented on in his Web Pro News column. He thinks someone out there can compete with Google, and he offered suggestions on how that might happen (hint: think vertically).

Choose your poison: Google in search or Google in advertising. If you've ever heard of the phrase "Hobson's choice", picking a competitive ground with Google looks more like no choice at all.

Skrenta thinks differently, even though it was he who suggested Google is the environment a couple of months back. His most recent thoughts on beating Google read more like a primer of why it can't be done head to head.

"A conventional attack against Google's search product will fail," Skrenta said. "They are unassailable in their core domain."

Kind of tosses the 'how to beat Google' theme out the window straightaway.

"You need both a great product and a strong new brand," he writes. "Both are hard problems."

The shoemaker Nike demonstrated this. Over the years as Phil Knight and company built the brand, it took quite a while before they were confident enough to put the swoosh on their products like hats and shirts without the word 'Nike'.

So you can't beat Google on search. You can't beat them on brand; Google is a dictionary word that to Internet users means search. It's like traveling in the South and ordering a soda at lunchtime. Everything is a Coke, even if it's a Sprite or a Mr. Pibb.

Where next? Skrenta suggested the vertical approach without coming out and calling it that:

You need to position your product to sub-segment the market and carve out a new niche. Or better, define an entirely new category. See Ries on how to launch a new brand into a market owned by a competitor. If it can be done in Ketchup or Shampoo, it can be done in search.

Google came about as many people sought to solve a great problem of the rapidly growing Internet with search. Once Google emerged by doing what people wanted - giving them a quality result immediately - most competitors fell by the wayside. Yahoo is the closest and they still trail Google by roughly 20 percent in the US search market.

That's general web search. Vertical search has become a rising field; witness the heated competition and product launches in the local search segment alone. Healthcare stands out with sites like Kosmix and Healthline delving into quality resources for their search results.

That's sub-segmenting the market. Skrenta nails the wisdom needed here by observing "The editorial value of search is in the index, not the interface." Google has proven that less is more with a minimalist approach.

Keeping that approach in mind goes along with Skrenta's later points: users tend to want to type two words in a box, and they aren't interested in fancy-schmancy "clusters, or tags, or categories, or directory tabs, or pulldowns. Ever."

Beating Google? Probably not going to happen right away. The winners in search will probably be the hyper-focused verticals, which makes sense. When creating an online business, entrepreneurs try to fill a niche. Search should work out the same way.


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