'We're Not A Google-Killer' Is The New Google-Killer

Chris Morrison at VentureBeat has been one of the privileged few to get a sneak preview of Powerset; he recently reported that the semantic start-up's unofficial tagline is, "We're not a search engine."

According to Morrison, this is standard for any company looking to dodge the hype of the "Google-killer" moniker -- fair enough; although, based on Powerset's behavior to date, they don't seem inclined to dodge hype of any variety.

There's another reason for Powerset and its ilk to shun the search engine label, though: search isn't broken.

Remember Gord's Breaking the Google Habit series? Over five of his Search Insider columns, he discussed how people form habits and what it takes to change. We got a more scientific understanding of what we knew instinctively already: habits are darn hard to break, even if you want to break them.



Take overeating. Despite pills and patches and pop psychology, millions are locked in a seemingly unbreakable cycle -- and that's something that people want to give up. That's something that goes to the heart of people's senses of self-esteem and well-being, something that can extend or diminish life expectancy.

There's no equivalent downside for using Google, which means that merely offering a slightly better version doesn't represent a convincing argument. Nobody is going to change search engines because the top 10 results are slightly more relevant.

So those companies looking to compete have to take a different approach: the we're-not-a-search-engine approach. This is the approach demanded of disruptive technologies since the beginning of time. Don't offer a faster horse, build a car.

The road to success requires would-be Google-killers to solve a problem that Google doesn't solve, to create a new habit under a new circumstance, where it can flourish free from the inexorable pull of ingrained attitudes.

This is why David Berkowitz reported last September that MySpace was the fourth largest search engine: because it's competing in a different arena.

Twine is another great example; it represents a totally new way of interacting with data. You can create a habit of using Twine without threatening your Google use, transitioning slowly and imperceptibly until you wake up one day and say, "Remember when we all thought Google couldn't be beaten?"

This is also why it's so important for Google to snap up a token presence in every emerging Web 2.0-3.0-4.0 space. Company strategists know that they're unlikely to be threatened on their own turf, and they want to make sure they're at least in the ring wherever the fight's going to be.

The great philosopher Osho said, "If you want to do something with darkness, you have to do something with light, not with darkness at all. You have to light a candle, and suddenly there is no darkness." I'm not suggesting that Google represents the Forces of Evil here, but the concept is transferable: light the candle of a new habit, and the old habit disappears.

Will Powerset be the candle of a new habit? That remains to be seen. Ultimately, though, someone will be the candle; as Osho also said, "Habits die hard. But they die certainly -- if one persists, they die."

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