The Coming Search Engine War, Part 1

Google is the king of search. There, I said it. It’s good to be king, but, as Netscape learned, it’s often hard to stay king. Microsoft is making rumblings it intends to launch its own search engine and join this battle. Google and Yahoo should be concerned.

Yes, Microsoft already operates a search site at MSN.com, but it’s powered largely by partners — LookSmart, Inktomi and Overture. Microsoft believes it can build its own algorithmic and PPC search interface and take on Google head-to-head. The outcome of this battle will impact Web marketing profoundly, to say the least.

Here’s a pari-mutuel racing metaphor for you. If Microsoft wins and annihilates the other search engines (as it has done in other markets), it will rule the PPC and inclusion market. If it places, three competitors with equal search-share could drive down search inventory prices. If it shows, it’s business as usual.

How would you bet? Some will argue that Google is just too good and relevant to be unseated. They might lay odds that Microsoft must build a vastly superior search engine to beat Google. They would be wrong.

Reporters and industry analysts keep asking me the same question: “Can Microsoft beat Google, and how would they do it?” Each time, I argue that Microsoft’s battle against Google will be waged not with technology or features, but with marketing and product positioning. It is a marketing battle, not a technology showdown.

We all recognize that brand promises must be backed up by performance, but hearts and minds are won through differentiation. That starts in the mind, not in product features.

Volvo owns the word “safety” in the mind of consumers. Audi has an automobile or two rivaling some of Volvo’s in terms of safety ratings, yet Audi is not building its marketing message around the word “safety.” Volvo owns it, and Audi knows it.

Similarly, in the mind of Internet users, Google owns the term “search engine.” It’s the clear leader, and unseating a leader is nearly impossible — unless you’re Microsoft.

How Microsoft Can Best Google

Exactly how can Microsoft trump Google, which possesses dominant market share and the preeminent search brand? I asked Jack Trout, the advertising pioneer and president of Trout and Partners, to offer his thoughts. As you may know, Jack is an advertising legend, having authored the very first article on the concept of “positioning” back in 1969. His landmark book, co-authored with former cohort Al Ries, was called “Positioning, The Battle For Your Mind.” It offers the radical theory products are positioned not in a market, but in the minds of customers. He went on to author the classic “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing,” and, most recently, “Big Brands, Big Trouble.”

Jack says Google is dangerously close to becoming the generic in the space. Should that happen, the company would be open to brand and product positioning attacks on multiple fronts.

“Microsoft has only one available strategy [to beat Google]: They need to position their new search service as the ‘next generation,'” Trout told me. Microsoft, he explained, should not try to claim its new search engine is “better,” because that won’t win. “The only way you beat Google is by being ‘what’s next.’ [Internet searchers] will switch to the ‘next thing,’ but Google already owns the current ‘best’ thing,” said Trout. “The Google offering must be positioned into a corner by Microsoft, positioned as the old product. If anyone could pull off this strategy, it would be Microsoft.”

In “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing,” Trout defines “The Law of Leadership” being based on the premise that everyone remembers the first of something. The Wright brothers built the first airplane. Who built the second one? George Washington was the first president of the United States. Who was second?

OK, but here’s the exception. If you cannot be first in the market, the third Immutable Law of Marketing, “The Law Of The Mind,” modifies the Law Of Leadership: It is better to be first in the mind than to be first in the market. A series of first-to-market products no longer exist: the Hurley washing machine, the Du Mont television, the MITS Altair 8800 personal computer — all were beaten by the second to market. First in the mind trumps first-to-market.

Google was hardly the first search engine, but due to its remarkable success and relevancy, it now is first in the mind. First in the mind doesn’t require oodles of cash. For a time, Apple enjoyed a leadership position with seed money of $91,000 and a more interesting name. Google won it with a hyper-focus its core business: search. Others have since made gains in relevancy and some believe both Inktomi and FAST are on par. Still, Google is the perceived market leader, and “equal to,” even “better,” doesn’t win against that positioning in the mind. That’s a near impossible brand position to unseat… again, unless you’re Microsoft.

Most of us remember that Netscape was the first browser and enjoyed the dominant position — until Microsoft used the power of its operating system to take that market away. Based on my casual conversations with various Google folks, I get the sense that there is an organizational belief they can thwart Microsoft by simply focusing on the user experience. The lesson of Netscape should cause them to shudder and plan alternative defenses.

The Netscape example wasn’t the first time Microsoft belatedly seized a market. Years earlier, Lotus 1-2-3 was the generic — the default –spreadsheet everyone used.

“I was working with [Lotus] to promote their spreadsheet,” said Trout. “My contact was screwed — Gates and company were letting them believe they were migrating over to OS/2, moving in the IBM direction. Then one day, they said, ‘we’re going to Windows’ — it was amazing.”

While Microsoft didn’t position MS Excel as the “what’s next” spreadsheet, it achieved the same benefit through its operating system. Says Trout, “They simply said, ‘this [MS Excel] is the spreadsheet for Windows’ [1-2-3 is for DOS]. They didn’t have to say it was ‘what’s next,’ because Windows was ‘the next’ operating system. Lotus didn’t move 1-2-3 over soon enough and lost everything.”

I asked Jack Trout about the possibility of Microsoft gaining search market share by adding a search interface to its new OS as many expect it will — effectively creating a structural barrier to all other search engines by saving steps, eliminating the need to even launch a browser: “You’ve just defined a ‘next generation’ idea,” he said. “This way you make search an operating system component. That’s tough to unseat.”

Next week in Part II of this piece, Jack Trout describes how Google and Yahoo must position if they hope to beat back Microsoft. Stay tuned.

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