The Brand Side of Search

No, this is not another article touting search as the under-sung savior for brand-centric marketers. While I generally agree that search can play a role within most marketing objectives, I'll save that speech for an audience that hasn't heard it already. What I'd like to address is the importance of brands as they relate to the success of search engines themselves, Google's in particular. For all that Google means to media, the Web, and the stock market, to its most important constituency -- the consumers who drive search queries -- Google is the favored brand above all others.

While Google continues to get beaten up in the press for everything it does and doesn't do these days, it's important to recognize that these PR lumps have largely been visible to industry insiders only. Consumers are still deeply mired in their love affair with Google. The average person doesn't internalize the difference between Google search results and those provided by competitive engines. Brand has become the true differentiator that sets Google apart, and that's a tremendous market advantage, to be sure. But is it sustainable in Google's mission to organize the world's information? What sort of misstep could turn Google's consumers away from their beloved brand?

I think there are three challenges Google will continue to face. First is the threat from technology. Could someone build a better search engine? This seems incredibly unlikely, given the depth of engineering talent and the commitment to evolution at Google. But could another brand or brands out-position Google's engine? That seems more plausible.

The financial opportunities within search are well known, and there are strong incentives to find unique points of entry. As Yahoo, MSN, and Ask Jeeves scope their individual angles to overthrow Google, brand strategies will play an important role in success and failure. And the proliferation of smaller vertical engines could pose a threat in the long run. In short, while Google may not lose significant share to a single competitive engine, multiple aggressors chipping away might eventually reduce Google's share of search queries.

Second, consumer privacy remains a significant concern. As it expands its application offerings and marketers push for improved approaches to targeting, Google will face difficult choices about which data points it does and does not connect. Gmail, which serves ads based on terms within e-mail content, has managed, surprisingly, to escape consumer criticism. Behavioral search targeting, which looks at prior user activity to tailor new search results, will be next in a long line of crossroads. Google's ability to maintain trust will hinge on how well these technologies are presented to users -- and how deftly the company can steer press around new developments.

Finally, Google's ability to remain true to its essence while expanding aggressively into new industries creates an interesting irony. I believe that people compartmentalize mega-brands, developing comfortable expectations of how, when, and where they engage with them. Stepping beyond those bounds can be tricky, particularly in cases where you infringe on other brands that consumers hold dear. Innovation, in effect, may be perceived as greed.

If you follow Google, you know how divergent its initiatives are. From software to space travel, the company has an interest in just about everything. How it enters these markets and positions itself from a brand standpoint will be critically important in its ability to succeed. Consumer loyalty is delicate. Google must be careful not to massage the definition of its famous "Don't Be Evil" slogan to accommodate growth pressures.

Above all, whatever Google thinks it wants to do, it must keep in mind that its brand's possibilities will ultimately be determined by its most important audience: the consumers.

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