Daniel Tunkelang pointed me to a NYT article on the growing power, and therefore growing public unwariness, of Google. The article makes a number of points, but what struck me most was the pseudo-repartee between Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, and long-time search watcher Danny Sullivan:
“You buy a car, use it for four years, and then you’ll look around at your choices,” Mr. Varian said. “But for search, we’re competing on a click-by-click basis.” If more users are going to Google, he said, it’s because they are concluding that Google’s product is superior.
Mr. Sullivan, who has been studying search engines since 1995, said that similar surveys have been done for many years — and that they always fail to reflect that most people have a primary attachment to a single search engine. When users try an alternative, he said, they “don’t go into active taste-testing mode”; afterward, they revert to their favorite. “Google is a habit,” he said, “and habits are very hard to break.”
It’s almost painful to admit, but Google’s Varian sounds more like a pundit than an economist or a scientist. Is it really true that Google is competing on a click-by-click basis? In the user studies that Google does, which of the following happens more often when the user types in a query to Google, and sees that Google has not succeeded in producing the information that they sought (fails):
- Does the user reformulate his or her query, and click “Search Google” again (one click)? Or,
- Does the user leave Google (one click), and try his or her query on Yahoo or Ask or MSN (second click), instead?
If what Hal Varian is saying is true, then I would expect there to be maximum entropy in the system.. 50% of the time users would take action (1), and 50% of the time they would take action (2). But my guess is that there isn’t that much entropy. My guess is that action (1) happens a lot more than action (2). And not just because it’s Google. The same sort of patterns are likely observable no matter the search engine. If a user on Yahoo doesn’t get what they want, I’ll bet they reformulate their query on Yahoo before trying a different engine. Same with MSN, even.
It therefore seems highly dubious to say that Google really is competing on ever single click. As any economist knows, there are other factors such as branding, loyalty, and laziness, that keep users reformulating their queries on the same site, rather than clicking to better results on other sites. Even distribution matters. Google is the default engine on Safari. It is the default engine on Firefox. And Google even paid Dell a rumored $1 billion in order for Google to be pre-bundled and set as the default search engine on all new Dell machines. All of that matters. Does Varian seriously not know this?
Google could put its punditry where its mouth is by one simple, innovative user interface improvement: They could have a set of links at the bottom of the page that say “Try your search on Yahoo” and “Try your search on Clusty”. That would turn a failed search from a two-click effort into a one-click effort, because the link would not only go to Yahoo, it would run the user’s same query on Yahoo.
In the early days of the web (1995, 1996) there were a lot more search engines that did this. If the user was truly dissatisfied with the Google results, it would truly make it a one-click experience to go to another search engine, and get immediate knowledge and feedback about which search engine is better. Rather than keeping the user locked inside the Google experience, where it is easier (one click) to re-search on Google rather than search on another engine (two clicks), Google should make it seamless so that competition truly is only one click away. Then, Varian could honestly claim that Google is competing on a click-by-click basis.
Or, another option would be for Google to relax its “you may not meta-search us” rule. By relaxing that rule, it would allow all sorts of innovation around the display of search results, so that users could more easily compare the results of Google vs. another search engine, side by side. By being able to do this, the users would get real feedback on the engine, and Google would have to compete for every click. Instead, by keeping the search results locked inside of the Google walls, and not letting users make better use of them, even for personal use only, Google introduces a barrier to competition, and plugs up the free, open flow of information that is the web.
Update: I was just reminded that Google itself used to have the “try your search on another engine” links in its very early days. Here are screenshots that show it. Now, those links are gone, and the user has to make twice as much effort to leave Google as they used to. That doesn’t seem very competitive.