Google is ten years old, but does anyone understand what it is up to? Its list of current initiatives is flabbergasting – GoogleMail, Google Groups, Orkut (social networking), Picassa (photo sharing), Google Maps, Google Earth (satellite pictures of locations across the globe), plus a whole series of mobile phone initiatives. And that’s not counting YouTube and, most recently, the browser Google Chrome. Google-watching is a full-time occupation for many.
Separately, the potential markets for many of these services are huge, yet, bizarrely, from a commercial point of view, they are almost irrelevant. When it comes to hard cash, search is all that matters and, looking to the future, it is search that marketers should watch most closely.
Why? For added drama, let’s compare Google to the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The first short-term impact was the explosion itself (the equivalent of 250,000 Hiroshima bombs) which wiped out everything for hundreds of miles. Google’s explosion is still under way. Five years ago, its advertising revenues nudged past $1bn (£500m), nearly four times its achievement of the year before. Next year, they more than doubled to $3.1bn (£1.7bn). Then they doubled again to $6bn (£3.3bn). In 2006, they jumped to $10.5bn (£5.8bn), to reach $16.4bn (£9.1bn) last year. This year they will sail past $20bn (£11.1bn) with ease.
Viewed from the safety of another world – big brands whose budgets are focused on media display advertising – this explosion was spectacular, but of only marginal importance. Its real impact was felt by different species: classified advertising and small and medium-sized businesses.
The second phase was knock-on effects. In the asteroid’s case, a huge dust cloud obscured the sun for a couple of years, killing off vast swathes of vegetation and plankton and all who lived off them. In Google’s case, the knock-on effects relate to consumer attitudes and behaviours. Pre-Google, marketing revolved around a particular sequence of events: creating awareness of your brand and influencing perceptions positively so that later, when consumers entered a shop, their choice went your way.
Via search, however, Google is making it possible to communicate with the right people at the right time: people researching a purchase. This is a potential goldmine, as most consumer spending goes on considered purchases – mortgages, pensions, cars, household and electrical appliances, holidays and so on.
It is also teaching consumers the value of online research. Consumer information gathering is being teased apart from traditional marketing channels of media advertising and retailing. Sophisticated new services such as Pintarget hope to make a new industry out of this separation. One implication is a slow collapse of retail power, as consumers make purchasing decisions before they go shopping.
The third phase of the asteroid’s impact was eco-system transformation, as previously marginal species rushed to fill the gaps left by those devastated by the first two phases. The force of this phase was only felt many years after the initial impact – and lasted even longer.
In marketing, this phase is only just beginning, so we can’t be sure what it will look like, but we have a hint. Google wasn’t the only or the first search engine. What made it stand out was its focus on “natural” rather than “biased” results. Before Google, search engines didn’t provide searchers with the information they were looking for, they provided the information advertisers paid them to deliver. Google ingeniously combined the two by using natural research results to attract users and paid-for search to subsidise the provision of natural research.
Now, we all know that thanks to search engine optimisation, natural search is manipulated to the nth degree. Nevertheless, Google represents a marker for the future. As a process, search is driven by the consumer, not by the advertiser. Content-wise, its value comes from the fact that it serves the individual’s agenda, not the advertiser’s. In doing so, search has exposed the biggest blindspot in the history of marketing: that when companies go to market with products or services to sell, they create two markets, not one.
The first market is for “better products” themselves. These products address consumption needs. The second market is for help in making “better decisions”. Here, the need is to make good choices about these products. The consumer market for decision-making support just happens to be the biggest market in the world (a better decision naturally leads you to the better product anyway). However, because marketers have been so focused on using information as a persuasion tool, rather than as a valuable product in its own right, they have ignored this market. As a result, most brands are ill-prepared for an environment where decision-making assistance services are coming into their own.
Google’s explosion is the trigger for the creation of this new environment, exposing marketing’s soft underbelly along the way. Yet search is in its infancy, as Google vice-president for search Melissa Mayer pointed out in a blog last week. Over the coming decades, search should be available and easy to use on mobile phones, in cars “and on handheld, wearable devices that we don’t even have yet,” she argued. Search engines should know where you are located, so that they tailor their answers to where you are. And search shouldn’t be restricted to words: we should be able to upload a picture or a fragment of a tune and find relevant answers.
Search should also be personalised. The search service should “know what you know already or what you learned earlier today” and “fully understand your preferences”, because you have chosen to share that information with it.
In short, Mayer argued, over the coming years, search will become “your best friend”, tailoring answers based on your preferences, your existing knowledge and the best available information, including “asking for clarification and presenting the answers in whatever setting or media works best.” What does good marketing look like in a world such as this, where the consumer’s decision-making support is his “best friend” and trusted first port of call?If Mayer’s vision has foundation, Google is not just a one-off impact after which everything returns to normal. It represents a tipping point to a very different marketing eco-system, with long-term implications which at least parallel those of the printing press. For brands failing to adjust to this new information environment, it could be an extinction event after all. v