September 6, 2008

Google: trapped in its own search box

by Brian Turner

Google failing to break out of search?

Google as a brand has become synonymous with search – heck it’s even a verb. You don’t use search – you Google for something.

Yet Google’s powerful brand connection with search hasn’t allowed the brand to lead in other areas, despite Google’s repeated attempts to broaden its reach.

Conversely, other brand names have failed to lead in areas outside of their traditional brand territory: for all its online activities, Microsoft remains branded as a software develoment company; Yahoo! for all its traffic is still a content portal.

Any products these companies release outside of those remits rarely develop significant marketshare.

And the same applies to Google.

Internet companies: branded by a single product

It appears that – so far as the web is concerned – companies are branded to a single business activity, and attempts to break out from that leads to weak products rather than expansion of brand strength.

And Google continues to have difficulty breaking out of their own search brand.

Despite a plethora of product releases over the past few years, at best most ordinary internet users would struggle to name more than a few Google products outside of search.

You can see Google are trying really hard, and being innovative at trying to capture marketshare in emerging markets, rather than established ones.

This is underlines by their development of Google Android – a new open-source platform for mobile devices.

Yet as we’ve already seen, the mobile industry has given Android a cold reception.

And now Google are pushing their brand boundary again with the launch of Google Chrome, a new browser which many observers presumed was intended to challenge Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

However, looking at my own traffic records it is clear that immediate take up isn’t from normal everyday internet users, but instead the internet tech-savvy.

Where I search traffic stats on normal consumer-focused sites, there’s not a trace of Chrome at all.

According to Hitwise, there was an immediate spike in usage of Google Chrome on release day, which quickly dropped on day two.

Despite the fact that Google are advertising their new browser on their homepages, there are a couple of clear possibilities as to why general consumers are currently shunning Google Chrome:

1. It says beta.

Normal users do not normally download beta software, because it says “liability” and “risk”. Normal users face enough technical challenges using the internet without the fear of unnecessary beta software crashing their system.

2. No need.

Normal internet users already have a browser. Why do they need a different one? While Google can evangelise tabs and similar, I haven’t yet heard a normal net surfer declare a need for tabbing. And IE does it anyway.

Google’s homepage can’t expand its brand

When Google first openly advertised Google Chrome on its homepage, a number of commentators declared that Google would quickly dominate the browser market because of it.

But, wait. Google’s homepage is a search engine. It’s branded on search. It’s untargeted advertising.

After all, I’m sure many of use remember when Google’s Picasa was advertised on every Google homepage.

And yet Picasa singularly failed to become a product leader despite this. People went to Flickr instead.

Similar with Google Desktop – the only reason most people have Google Desktop search these days is not because Google advertised it on their home page – but because Dell bundle it their Windows distros.

The only way Google Chrome is going to develop significant market share from IE is if Dell actually start to bundle it on their PC’s.

And even then, consumers are attached to familiarity, and Internet Explorer is familiar.

They’d need a special hook to move products because they already have invested their trust and loyalty into Microsoft software through sheer experience and exposure.

Ironically, it could end up being the case that rather than challenge IE, Google Chrome simply attacks the more technically savvy Firefox userbase – and undermines Firefox marketshare.

In that regard, by Google trying to break its brand boundary, it could actually play into the hands of Microsoft as its competitor by inadvertently releasing a product that serves to divide and conquer Microsoft competition in the browser market.

Google: a vertical brand

When it comes to Google products, most have effectively failed to capture significant market share where their primary purpose was not related to search directly.

The Google brand remains synonymous with web search.

It’s a product vertical that defines the brand limits of the company.

Products which expand on that brand base tend to show stronger traffic volume than products outside of that brand vertical.

The result? Products which continually lag behind the assets of companies better branded in that product area.

While Google’s vision is to be applauded, their brand remains a strength and weakness – a market leader in what they do best, a distant runner up in everything else.

Obviously it remains to be seen how Google Android and Chrome fare over the longer term, but it’s hard to be optimistic – these are products outside of Google’s brand vertical.

Additionally, both Android and Chrome are not offering consumers something they don’t have yet or need – they just offer alternatives to most already have and are perfectly happy with.

In that kind of marketplace, change is a fickle mistress.

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