The Coming Search Engine War, Part 2

I talked with Jack Trout in part one of this series about how Microsoft might usurp Google’s reign as King of Search. Jack suggests a strategy for Google to thwart the impending attack.

Jack explained how Microsoft’s only strategy for beating Google is to position its new search service as the “what’s next” of search. Jack explains people don’t leave established brands for “better.” They defect only for the “what’s next” thing. The strategy, incidentally, is exactly what Yahoo should pursue as it seeks to reclaim ground lost to Google. The caveat: It’s hard to claim “what’s next” turf with a competitor’s technology. The sooner Yahoo replaces Google with its new acquisitions, Inktomi or FAST, the sooner it can pursue a true differentiation strategy built on “we’re what’s next in search.”

How does Google defend its leadership position against two tough competitors, one of which is expected to be baked into the OS (operating system) of virtually every PC in the world? Jack says market leaders have two primary options: “Leaders must pursue the knock-off strategy. Find a way to do exactly what they’re doing. If you get wind that somebody’s going to be launching a competitive product, you find a way to do exactly the same [thing].”

Google followed this strategy brilliantly in its battle with FAST (until FAST changed it focus to enterprise search several months ago). Every so often, FAST would announce it had the largest index. Google would then quietly increased the reported size of its own index, removing it as a differentiator.

This isn’t an option as far as Microsoft’s OS is concerned. Microsoft has been historically unwilling to allow access to others where Windows is concerned. It seems unlikely Google could even be an alternate choice for desktop-based search. What to do?

“The only other strategy for Google is to attack themselves, literally [make] obsolete their own product,” says Trout, “By launching the ‘next generation’ of Google, they become ‘what’s next.’ They have to create that kind of perception. It’s called ‘attacking yourself with a better idea.’ In essence, they can say, Microsoft is matching the old Google. We’re on to the next thing.”

Trout cites others who effectively executed this strategy to thwart competitive attacks. Gillette is an example. “They always, every X number of years, attack themselves. They wipe themselves out with a next-generation idea. First, they wiped out their own wet razor market with a new disposable to thwart Bic; then their first disposable with Trak II; then the Sensor; now Mach3. They spend a gazillion dollars wiping out their own business so nobody ever gets a bead on them.”

Attack yourself before your competitors do. You could argue Google attacks itself with new innovations all the time. It introduced news search, image search, groups, and a number of other innovations. The problem: The company has yet to position any innovation as its “what’s next” in search. It never does anything perceived by the market as obsoleting its existing product. It’s never “this is the new Google.” It’s always just the same old Google, getting better.

If Google is brave enough to obsolete its current offering when Microsoft introduces its new search innovation, Trout believes it could throw a wrench into Microsoft’s works. “[Microsoft would be] stuck because their wonderful apparatus is switching over to sort of a Google-like product, but the Google-like product is now the ‘old’ product… [Google is now] a new generation product. That’s what they’ve got to do.”

What next steps can Google take to counter Microsoft? It should consider:

Divide and Conquer: Search behavior is migrating. Many book searches already occur on Amazon. Many travel-related searches have migrated to Expedia or Orbitz; health-related searches are conducted on WebMD and MerckSource. In terms of a “what’s next” strategy, Google should consider testing vertical search sites, preferably not Google branded. BMW didn’t introduce the MINI Cooper as a BMW. BMW owns “performance,” not “tiny British car.” Google owns “search” but not “sports search” or “medical search.” The trouble with line extension, according to Trout, is short-term effects are often the opposite of long-term results. Line extensions almost always work near term, but finally fail. Temptation will be strong to leverage a powerful brand name. Google must resist, or suffer the consequences. In attacking its own domination and possibly distributing it across a variety of vertical search brands, Google could reduce the size of the pie for a new mass-market search interface, while increasing the size of several new categories it can dominate. A larger search market may result. The first vertical? The lucrative travel sector. Google could literally redefine search and move the target. It’s much harder to hit a moving target.

Downloadable Search App: Google offers a free downloadable toolbar that allows users to launch a search from their browser without visiting Google’s site. It could offer an updated toolbar that doesn’t require a browser launch, a floating search window that launches with the OS. This provides always-on, always-on-top search. Perhaps Google could innovate some other indispensable desktop search utility. If it offered something new, interesting, valuable and free, history proves users will download and install it. Any such app may slow Microsoft and force it to compete with an adopted utility. Google has only a small window of opportunity to execute such a strategy.

Legal Reprisals: Market leaders must often pursue affirmative legal action. Google should become fluent in case law regarding the OS advantage to glean anti-Microsoft evidence for the courtroom. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on many occasions (even before the advent of the Internet) that “power gained through some natural and legal advantage such as a patent, copyright, or business acumen can give rise to liability if ‘a seller exploits his dominant position in one market to expand his empire into the next.'” (Times-Picayune Publishing Co. v. United States, 345 U.S. 594 (1953)). These principles are reaffirmed in federal appeals courts throughout the country.

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