Everything I Know about Marketing I learned from Google

Gord Hotchkiss, Enquiro

Gord Hotchkiss
President
Enquiro Search Solutions
2/7/10

Which of my lessons resonates with you the most and why?

Actually, the two biggest lessons I learned from Google aren’t really covered in your list – Respect Your Customer and Be Bold in Your Mission.

Google has an unwavering respect for their users. They’ve consistently put the user first and revenue second, knowing if they nail the first one, the second will inevitably follow. They’re the only search engine to consistently do this. I’ve seen this erode a little at Google since they’ve become a public company, but they’re still much better at this than their competition. The challenge they’re running into now it taking an engineering culture and keeping it in step with a marketing revenue model. We’ll see how they negotiate that.

The other lesson is that Google has been cocky as hell right from the beginning. If they couldn’t do it bigger and better than everyone else, they weren’t interested. Call it a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, call it hubris, call it ego –- the fact is, Google has always had big dreams. While reality has had a hard time keeping up to Google’s dreams, those dreams continually drive them to do something amazing.

How have you (or your clients) put one or more of these lessons to good use?

Well, we live and breathe some of these every day. Relevancy Rules, Wisdom of Crowds, Don’t Interrupt and Mindset Matters really dictate what the search experience looks like. To me, the sign of a good marketer, especially in search, is understanding intent and meeting your prospects halfway in helping them realize that intent.

What makes Google such a unique company? Why has it been so successful?

I put a lot of the credit for the uniqueness of Google to Sergey and Larry, the founders. I think the desire to dream big, the obsessive focus on user experience and the confidence that their way, although different, was right has made the difference. To see what happens to a company when founders step back from the direction and culture of the company after being convinced that somebody older and wiser than they are knows better, just look at what happened to Yahoo! Conversely, try to imagine Apple without Steve Jobs. Founder vision that defies the typical rules of corporate conduct is far too rare in the business world today.

You’ve spent a lot of time analyzing human behavior and neuropsychology as it relates to search. Why is it that Google has come to be a verb for search?

In language, agreement on a new word depends on two things — a shared acceptance of the word in a society (that comes from critical mass) and the ability of our brain to link the label to the concept based on our understanding. The two really go together. I don’t think there’s any great uncovered psychological truth here, but the power of it is really in those two things. We all agree that going to Google is what we do when we search online. That’s powerful. And, in our own mind, we accept that as as the most relevant label for our own act of searching. The universal acceptance is the importance of Google becoming a word.

The fact that we use it as a verb is interesting as well. Typically, brands that become words become nouns. It’s much rarer for them to become verbs. We reserve a special place in our vocabulary for verbs. We use verbs to connect our sense of self and our own motivations to the physical world around us. Verbs allow us to do something with the things around us. The fact that Google became the defacto label we use as the bridge between us and all the information that lives on the web is pretty astounding.

What makes the Google habit so well-formed?

Habits rely on stable environments. Habits are, by definition, things we do over and over again. These repeated actions carve “ruts” in our brains, allowing us to stop thinking about doing them. Call them the “power-saver” mode of the human brain.

The fact that Google became a habit really is due to three lucky coincidences for Google.

First of all, Google’s introduction of PageRank made them a substantially more relevant search engine than their competitors. So, we stopped using the competitors and started using Google -– exclusively. All our search activity was happening on one engine. This was different that what happened before. Prior to Google, I regularly used 3 or 4 different engines. I wasn’t doing one thing in one place often enough for a habit to form.

The second coincidence was the simplicity of Google’s layout. Habits hate hard work. The less work our brains have to do, the more likely it will be that something becomes a habit. The clean Google interface made it very easy for us to form a Google habit.

The third coincidence was the explosion of indexable content right around the time Google was introduced. Habits become reinforced if we believe they’re a successful strategy. If the route we take home from work every time always gets us home, there’s no reason for us to find a new route. If it suddenly is blocked by construction, or a new expressway opens up, then we’ll start finding a new way. But even when we know the old habitual route is no longer the best way, habits are hard things to break. For a few weeks, we’ll feel an ingrained compulsion to take the old route home and we’ll have to mentally “catch” ourselves and consciously navigate to the new route. We never had to do this with Google. PageRank made it better out of the gate. And with the explosion of content, as we started to use it, it kept seeming that we were getting better and better results. We were getting better results, but it wasn’t all due to Google’s algorithm. It was also due to the fact that there were a lot more results to choose from. This was true of all search engines, but we gave the credit to Google, further reinforcing the habit.

Lesson #3 is “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” Why is Google’s search product so easy to use and explain to others?

This is something that I’ve found fascinating. I think Google did a pretty good job of tapping into an inherent human drive – the drive to seek information – in a way that was easy for us to understand.

I’ve gone on and on about Pirolli’s Information Foraging theory, but it’s because I believe it’s one of the most important foundations in understanding how we interact with information online. The whole concept fascinates me.

First, let me say I’m an unrepentant Darwinist. It’s important to get that out in front, because the whole explanation is hinged on that. Humans come equipped with certain evolved behaviors, traits and skills. These “hardwired” assets were really developed to help humans survive in an environment that bears little resemblance to the one we live in today. But the one thing evolution did give us was an amazing ability to adapt, driven largely by our freakishly large and malleable brains.

Technology moves fast, far faster than our natural ability to evolve new inherent physiological or psychological strategies for dealing with strategy. So we borrow from our existing tools and abilities and we adapt these for the new situation. Our amazing brain allows us to pull off this trick.

You weren’t born with the ability to drive a vehicle, but somehow your brain allows you to pilot this 2 ton mass of steel and plastic down the road at speeds several times faster than what we’re naturally capable of. From a pure evolutionary perspective, driving a car should be impossible. There’s no way we should be able to make decisions fast enough to avoid catastrophe. But somehow, our brains are able to pull this off. It’s not that our brains have evolved (in the true biological sense of the word evolved) to drive a car. It’s because our brains are flexible enough to take our inherent abilities and adapt them for the task at hand. It’s a powerful solution but it’s not a foolproof one.

There are also hardwired limitations in our brains that can sometimes trigger disaster. If we’re using our brains for something they’re not inherently wired for, that puts a substantial load on them. Alcohol and distractions like cell phones can quickly throw a wrench in the works, bringing us to the quick realization that our ability to drive a car relies on our brains ability to keep all the required balls in the air at the same time. We’re not native drivers.

Interacting with websites falls into the same category. There is no evolved “technology” module in our brains. We have no gene that is coded for web searching. So we’re stuck with using what we do have. The good news is that our cortex is remarkably adept in pulling together what’s required. A recent UCLA fMRI study starts to give us some indication of the parts of the brain recruited for the job of web searching: the prefrontal cortex, the language center, the visual cortex and some of the limbic structures, including the hippocampus. These modules, all evolved for another purpose, come together to accomplish the required task, searching for information on the web. It’s really amazing, when you think about it.

What I’ve talked about up to this point is the hardware we come equipped with. But there also have to be “programs” we use to run the hardware. There are sub-conscious strategies humans also adapt to new requirements. This is what happens (according to Pirolli) when we search for information online. We borrow a strategy that’s as old as our species, the strategy to find food. And, just like searching for food, we look for hints in our environment about the best path to take to find information. We want to expend the least amount of energy necessary to find the best source of food. That’s a hardwired strategy that’s necessary for survival –- calories in must always be greater than calories out. We adapt this same strategy in our information seeking.

This is where Google comes in. Google is a great “food patch.” It’s easy to use, it does a great job of categorizing and providing “scent” (the hints on where the best information might be, in the form of links) and best of all, it’s a “meta”-patch. It’s the connector to all the information patches that may exist. In fact, in certain cases, it can become a patch unto itself. If I’m looking for a zip code, a date, a phone number or the weather in a location, I never have to go beyond the search page.

So, in a long winded answer, the secret of “Keep is Simple Stupid” is to understand how we work at a hardwired level and allow up to adapt quickly to accomplish our task.

You’ve recently discussed the “Just In Time Information Economy” on your blog. What does this phase mean? What does it mean for Google? How can marketers thrive in such an environment?

The internet has substantially changed our concept of information. Information used to be a privilege. It conferred status and power. With this, it was only natural that we would use that to our advantage. We build businesses around information so we could profit from it. We controlled information and charged a price for it. We put tolls on access to information. And if you’re going to do that, it makes sense to create repositories for information. It’s much easier to control access and charge a fee when the information sits behind walls you’ve built. This was the world pre-Google.

But, with the advent of the Web and Google, information changed. It became democratized. It became free. And it broke out of repositories and fragmented across the web. Ownership of information became a hugely contentious issue. Access to information became even bigger. The walls were still in place and the owners of those walls still expected to be paid, but the information no longer stayed put behind those walls. It seeped out everywhere.

As information changed, so did our strategies for finding information. When we knew that information lived in repositories, it was simpler. We just picked the right depository and decided if we wanted to pay the toll -– whether in the form of a subscription or by providing an audience for advertising. But when information seeped everywhere, we had to find different ways to find that information. Hence the search engine –- hence Google.

So look at how the dynamic has changed. Information now lives everywhere. And the amount of information has exploded. We can now quickly determine if any given piece of information exists. Before the web, there was no way to do that and even if we did believe that the information might exist, we knew we’d probably have to pay for it. We were quite content not to know everything. But the web changed all that. We can know everything now, as required. And chances are, the information will be free. That’s the “Just in Time” information economy. And Google currently holds the keys to that economy.

What does that mean for marketers? Again, there’s a huge paradigm shift here. Marketing was built around the concept of the walled information repository. Advertising was the price we paid for access. So, it was natural for the primary relationships to be between the advertisers and the walled information gardens. Massive advertising holding companies exist to give them equal bargaining power with massive publishing and entertainment channels. But it’s an old paradigm. The Just in Time Information economy means marketers have to develop new relationships, directly with their prospects. The walled garden is a thing of the past. Now there are only people looking for information and the information itself. Search becomes a utility that connects the two. Marketers have to get this.

You’re a big believer in the “alignment of intent.” What other marketing platforms besides SEM boast “alignment of intent?”

I think the days of destination search are numbered. The first phase of web search was just looking for information as an end unto itself. We’re quickly adapting to this new opportunity. But information is seldom the end goal. Information is usually a means to an end. We want to do something with the information. It’s a piece in a much bigger objective. And that objective is what defines our intent.

So, here’s where this goes next. Search providers have to replace relevancy with usefulness. Relevancy is a great measure if we’re judging information, but not so great if we’re measuring usefulness. That’s why I believe apps are the next flavor of search, little dedicated helpers that allow us to do something with the information. The information itself will become less and less important and the app that allows utilization of the information will become more and more important. The idea of search as a destination is an idea whose days are numbered. The important thing won’t be search, it will be the platform and the apps that run on it. The next big thing will be the ability to seamlessly find just the right app for your intent and utilize it immediately. iTune’s app store is an indication of the next step. Search becomes a utility, an engine that lies below that.

What does this mean for intent? Intent will be more fully supported from end to end. Right now, we have to keep our master “intent” plan in place as we handle the individual tasks on the way to that intent.

Here’s an example. I’ve decided to take a trip to Italy to do some cycling for my 50th birthday (and most likely, some wine drinking) That’s the master intent. Immediately, my brain starts to break that intent down into tasks: finding airfares, a place to stay, a place to rent a bike, things to do, routes to take, etc. Each of these tasks have a number of sub tasks. For example, a place to stay could be a hotel, a vacation rental or a home exchange. Each of these possibilities requires more information. I decide the information I need and then go to conduct my searches.

Planning this trip could result in dozens of main tasks and hundreds of sub tasks, each requiring different pieces of information. As I search for that information, I will be using relevancy to determine if it’s the information I’m looking for. That’s what I use Google for. But along the way, Google has no idea of my overall intent. In fact, Google struggles even determining a very specific intent for a sub task. If I search for Verona Vacation Rentals, Google has no idea how that fits into the bigger picture.

Now, I could use a travel agent or a tour operator to take my main intent, a memorable trip on my 50th birthday, and help me put everything together. But that comes with a significant price tag attached and there are always trade offs. I sacrifice some personalization and flexibility in that approach.

But imagine if there were an app that could keep my master intent in mind for the entire process. It would know what my end goal was, would be tailored to understand my personal preferences and would use search to go out and gather the required information. When we look at alignment of intent, that’s a really intriguing concept for marketers to consider.

In 10 years, how will the marketing world be different and what will Google’s role be in the ecosystem?

Personalized intent, as described, will be the given. Increasingly, we’ll depend more and more on these smart app-ssistants to do the initial qualification for us. Brands will adapt to fit into this new market space. Marketing will become better aligned with the “just in time” information economy.

Google’s role could go one of two ways:

One, they become a utility, providing the underlying search functionality to other apps. If this happens, Google becomes marginalized and much less important. They lose control of the opportunity to be the “point of introduction” between user intent and marketers. This would be very bad news for Google.

Two, They become a provider of platforms and apps. This allows them to vertically integrate the experience. This is a massive challenge, and I’m not sure any one company, even Google, is capable of doing this. We’ll see what happens with Android, as this will be an indication if they’ve got the chops to compete in this marketplace. I suspect fragmentation across multiple providers is more likely, especially in the app space.

In less than 140 characters, what’s the single most important thing you’ve learned from Google?

Listen to your customer (user) first, everyone else after.

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