A little internal test at the Mountain View, Calif., search giant goes like this: You take Google search results, slap them on a Yahoo search page and ask users which results they like better. Inevitably, Google wins -- even though they're the same results. Such is the power of the Google brand, arguably the company's most important asset.
But after a decade of near-universal love, Google is facing its toughest test. It's still got a great product and a good story but it's big enough that competitors are slinging arrows from all directions. And while it's cultivated a fun, easy and helpful brand persona, its culture is highly data-driven and insular. It's a combination that helped it win Round 1 of the search war, but may make managing Brand Google a whole lot tougher going forward.
Not a day has gone by in the past few months where Google hasn't been blamed for some societal ill, economic or otherwise. To read the headlines in the U.S., Google took away your morning paper and is chipping away at your privacy. In the U.K., citizens of the village of Broughton linked arms to stop Google's cameras from mapping the town as part of Street View. And this comes after a year of battling blogger insinuations about it motives after CEO Eric Schmidt conceded that its cuddly motto, "Don't be evil" won't necessarily apply to all situations in the future, not to mention a public-relations ballast spearheaded by Microsoft but delivered by its second-most- important constituency: advertisers.
Indeed, in the downturn, even Google's economics have come back to earth. Search-ad spending, like every other kind of advertising, is taking a hit, and the first quarter of 2009 was the first time Google's revenue actually fell from the prior quarter. The company has shuttered businesses such as radio and print advertising and even had the first layoffs in its history.
"That is going to be part of life for them," said Tim Cadogan, a former Yahoo exec who now runs OpenX, an ad-serving competitor to Google's DoubleClick. "There are two levels of brand, its consumer brand and its industry brand. Its consumer brand is pretty darn strong. The industry brand has become more difficult for them to manage because they have become so powerful and explicitly ambitious."
Consumers beg to differ
Yet the intra-industry attacks haven't eroded consumer devotion to Google's brand of search, suggesting perhaps the classic case of media echo chamber, in which the press and industry pundits say one thing and consumers don't care and/or don't listen.
Despite the best efforts of its competitors to dent it, the Google brand has been pretty much unassailable. It's been the most-admired brand for the past three years, as judged by research firm Millward Brown, and is on track to retain that place when new results are announced this week.
In fact, the recent attacks have had nearly the opposite effect: its sentiment is trending upward over the past 60 days, as is the use of "Google" as a verb, according to Collective Intellect. Its share of all search queries stands at close to 64%, according to ComScore, an all-time high. While its search competitors have steadily improved their services, that's not enough to unseat the leader.
"In a draw, leading brands win," said Allen Adamsen, managing director of branding firm Landor Associates. "If the best the competition can do is get to parity, Google is going to win because they have inertia, momentum and consumer laziness on their side."
"Google is focused on products that work for consumers," said Dennis Woodside, VP-Americas operations at Google, who was in charge of the U.K. business during the Street View launch there. "There was concern in the press [about the launch]. But the newspapers in the U.K. have comments, and if you look at the comments on the story, about nine out of 10 people were like, 'I read the article and then I tried the product and wow -- I really like it.' So people find the product engaging.
"As a society what we're wrestling with is the technology that's available can do some really interesting things, but it's very different from what we're used to, and the technology -- not any one company -- challenges how we think about think," Mr. Wooside said. "And what you're seeing is a dialogue about how it's going to work. And I think that's healthy. Maybe consumers are telling us something about what their expectations are and they're different than what professionals think their expectations should be."
Still, the history of consumer branding -- and the brief history of the internet -- suggests this kind of consumer devotion is unsustainable. And recently Amazon and Domino's have made it clear how some innocent "cataloging error" or a couple of rogue employees can disrupt a consumer view of a brand.
Complicating things, the company is also at a delicate moment in its life cycle. It must keep innovating to stay ahead, but it's so big any shift it makes affects a current or potential business partner, creating one more friend or enemy. And as search becomes more social, as many people believe it will be, where will Google end up? After all, it's great for helping consumers learn there's an allergy specialist in the neighborhood, but what about an allergy specialist your friends use and like?
"Google built its brand on making the internet small again -- but that is old-school," said John Battelle, chairman of Federated Media and author of "The Search." "But there's a shift going on: Real-time search, Facebook status or what people are saying about the Dodge Charger on Twitter. We don't know what this looks like yet."
Google is keenly aware of the difficulties ahead. Its third rail has always been privacy, and the company has taken pains to steer clear of the potential PR pitfalls. CEO Eric Schmidt has said consumer trust in Google is the company's built-in check on this issue. In September Google announced it would start destroying user data after nine months. And Google waited until 2009 to launch its own brand of behavioral targeting, twisting the semantics into something called "interest-based targeting."
Improving on search
This summer, its most deep-pocketed rival, Microsoft, will launch a consumer campaign in an attempt to lure Google users to Microsoft's new search engine. It will try to convince consumers that the current state of search -- namely, Google -- isn't very good, and that it can be much better.
While Yahoo is taking the data generated by searches and using it to target display ads, Google hasn't taken that step. Google's display business is still small, so why take a risk with the search franchise?
PR and branding experts advise Google to stay focused on building the next excellent product and not distract itself with what competitors are doing. And, they say, it's important to listen to consumers; it's impossible to please 100% of people, and the conversations in the trade and media world can seep out to the public. What's important is to be transparent and human about addressing criticism.
Bob Pearson, who most recently headed social media for computing giant Dell and is now CEO of the Blog Council, pointed to Walmart, which has become more transparent and communicative in an effort to show that big doesn't equal bad. "The best brands know you have to have a transparent conversation about what you're doing, be willing to hear the feedback if it's negative and address them," he said.