Google: The Heinz Ketchup Of Search

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, "What the Dog Saw," is actually a collection of essays: specifically, his work at The New Yorker from the past ten years or so. It's a book designed for the same sort of curious mind that delights in the random parallels found in "Freakonomics" (in which authors Levitt and Dubner ask, "What do Sumo wrestlers and kindergarten teachers have in common?"). Gladwell's essays draw comparisons between mammograms and precision bombing, Enron and the Nazi "super weapon" of the 1940s. And in amongst this collection of oddities, he finds the time to wonder why, in a world of hundreds of mustard varieties, there's really only one ketchup.  

The answer is straightforward, according to the professionally trained tasters and sensory-analysis experts Gladwell interviewed: it's all in the amplitude. Ketchup, somewhat uniquely among ingestables, represents a near-perfect balance not only of the five flavors detectable by our taste buds, but also of the way they "bloom" together and the way the textures interact: "When something is high in amplitude, all its constituent elements converge into a single gestalt. You can't isolate the elements of an iconic, high-amplitude flavor like Coca-Cola or Pepsi. But you can with one of those private-label colas that you get in the supermarket... Some of the cheaper ketchups are the same way. Ketchup aficionados say that there's a disquieting unevenness to the tomato notes in Del Monte ketchup."



Google is the essence of amplitude. Though its simplicity has been praised far and wide, in reality the search engine strikes just the right balance: everything you need and not too much. You want advanced search? No problem. You want images or news or blogs? No problem. But that straightforward query box, in the vast majority of instances, is ketchup. We know that when we hit Enter, we'll get that perfect amplitude: the search engine will do just enough thinking for us to be helpful, without doing so much that we feel deprived of choice.

When you're a new product entering a market dominated by a well-established player with high amplitude, your main strategy is to try to stand out. "They're perfectly balanced? Well then we'll make garlic ketchup! Lemon ketchup! Jalapeño ketchup!" The problem, as Gladwell points out, is that those "hooks" that make it different in the beginning tend to be the very thing you get sick of first.

Remember how vertical search engines were going to swoop in and -- in their multitudes -- sweep Google off its feet? Ten years ago, I was sitting in a meeting with someone telling me their new site was a "portal-vortal, a kind of vertical portal" -- whatever that meant. But the vertical hook is, by definition, limiting. There's a reason I go to Google instead of individual fora when I've got an IT question; it's because I don't know who'll have the best answer and I can't be bothered to do an individual search on each site.

Certain verticals have won their way into our hearts: Rotten Tomatoes, for example, is likely the first place you'll go for a movie review. But overall, the search industry acts more like ketchup than mustard. Gladwell quotes Howard Moskowitz, a food-testing market research guru: "I guess," says Moskowitz, "ketchup is ketchup."

Me, I guess search is Google -- but I'd be interested to know if you see any jalapeño-flavored verticals on the horizon. Let me know in the comments or via @kcolbin.

6 comments about "Google: The Heinz Ketchup Of Search".
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  1. Norman Berns from ReelGrok, April 6, 2010 at 12:01 p.m.

    Splendid, clever and focused. And all in perfectly good balance, too. The ketchup of conceits.

  2. Douglas Cleek from Magnitude 9.6, April 6, 2010 at 12:37 p.m.

    Very funny article. Love the ketchup amplitude thing.
    I too remember the talk of "vorticals" all packaged in that manner. I guess they couldn't get out of the way...and got squashed by Google.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 6, 2010 at 1:28 p.m.

    Excellent. Ketchup plus horseradish = cocktail sauce. Google plus Apple = ?

  4. Mark Vozzo, April 6, 2010 at 8:23 p.m.

    A very interesting analogy indeed. If Google is the Heinz Ketchup of search, I wonder what Bing would be?

    BTW, here's the Bing's Reference article on 'Ketchup'

  5. Gary Mirkin from, April 7, 2010 at 5:13 p.m.

    Clever but there is a vertical search model that is about to hit the search world and turn it on it's ear the way Google once promised. is not only the next generation vertical + horizontal search model but it will take all the frustration put of the current search landscape for the consumer. Check it out and see what we will deliver. Local search, social content and original industry news in hundreds of vertical professional. best of all, they are all NETWORKED, you never have to leave!

  6. Dan Roberts from Hearst Digital Media, April 7, 2010 at 8:25 p.m.

    The next innovation won't be what's inside the bottle - because Google, Bing, Wolphram...they're all basically a mixture of the same ingredients (signals) - it will be the bottle itself. Search will transform to discovery as gesture-based, intuitive computing reveals the connective fibers of search, allowing us to explore the results set to find what we're looking for.

    Innovation won't come from making search 'better', but rather from making content discovery 'easier' or more intuitive. Imagine Google's wonder wheel on the iPad...

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