The Google giant begins to topple

A handful of stories show some cracks in Google's heretofore impervious facade.

Last week, Facebook hit a major milestone: the site officially received more traffic than Google, thanks to the activities of its more than 400 million users. Yes, that only considered traffic during a one-week period. Yes, Facebook's revenue model is a flea beside Google's mammoth of a monetization machine -- to be exact, Google makes 190 times the revenue of Facebook per pageview. And, no, Facebook is not a replacement for Google. But that doesn't matter, because Google doesn't need to be afraid of replacements. When it comes to online, sitting-at-your-computer, go-to-a-search-engine search, our Google habit is beyond ingrained. So they really needn't worry about the "We've got a better algorithm" competitors. By the time we even wake up enough to remember to try a different search engine, our autopilot will already be perusing Google's SERPs. What they DO need to be afraid of, however, is that our habits change altogether. That, instead of going to a web page specifically to search, we search directly from our social network, from our microblogging platform, or -- heaven forbid -- from our game-dynamic geolocating service. The reason they need to be afraid of this is because we very rarely change our habits for a given behavior, but over time we change the behaviors themselves. “If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse,” quipped Henry Ford, and the same holds true for search. Too many companies have gone bust trying to build a better Google -- a faster horse -- when the only thing Google needs to fear is a car. In order for a new behavior to take root, two things have to happen pretty much simultaneously: 1) the benefits of the new behavior have to become readily apparent, and 2) the disadvantages of the old behavior have to become clear as well. In Google’s case, there are a fair few cracks in the armor, Facebook’s traffic trump being just one. Consider, for example, the disastrous launch of Buzz. Google’s ill-fated social network was reminiscent of New Coke: in hindsight, the general public can’t help but wonder, “What the heck were they thinking?” What they were thinking, I suppose, is that if you have however many million Gmail users, you might, just might, be able to circumvent the normal laws of consumer product adoption, skipping over the innovators and the early adopters and going straight to the mainstream. It is the behavior of a company that has gotten so big it fails to recognize that human behavior still happens in a microcosm. So what? Google launched yet another product that was nowhere near as successful as its core competency. A social network got a little more traffic during a week in March. Microsoft gained search share while Google’s dropped. None of these events seriously threaten the big G, which is still holding onto 70% of the search market. Nonetheless, they represent that insidious beast: the cracks in the armor. Combine that with the rise and rise of new behaviors, including becoming mayor of every place you set foot in, and Google should be paying attention. We’re not at crisis stations yet, but change is afoot -- and any hope of staying ahead of it starts now.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.