As new competitors aim to reshape the Web and new products change its focus, what does it mean to be Google?
The question of meaning has been an easy one to answer for most of Google's history. Google meant search: Google's own dictionary application defines "Google" as a verb meaning "to search." (The folks at Merriam-Webster concurred.) And Google's brand reached those heights through a very conscious decision to forgo the traditional brand advertising that competitors like Yahoo, Lycos, Ask Jeeves, Microsoft, and others embraced.
Clearly, that worked. But Google is entering a new era in which it has branched out into all sorts of fields, from mobile phones to broadband networking to business services.
Google no longer means "search," at least not exclusively. To varying degrees, Google also means e-mail, browsers, broadband networking, alternative energy, personal computing, and, to some, scary Internet giant. Google has embraced limited amounts of advertising in some of those areas--such as the "Going Google" campaign for Google Docs--but continues to resist the temptation to tell its story more broadly.
That may be changing. Google executives declined to comment on how their marketing strategy is evolving, and John Battelle, chairman and CEO of Federated Media and author of "The Search," about the rise of Google, thinks that's because Google hasn't quite figured out what it wants to be when it grows up.
"They haven't determined what the brand means in a post-search world," Battelle said. With Facebook forcing discussion of what that post-search world will look like during its F8 conference this week, add another item to Google's to-do list.
The way it was
Google briefly considered traditional marketing during its infancy in the late 1990s. After all, everybody else was doing it, and it seemed amid a dot-com frenzy that the only way to get noticed was to enter the fray.
But in an interview with the alumni magazine of her alma mater, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Google's first marketing executive, Cindy McCaffrey, explained that co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were skeptical of just about anything traditional when it came to business. After realizing what it would cost to do a traditional brand advertising campaign they decided instead to spend that money on engineering and infrastructure.
McCaffrey turned to the other side of promotion--public relations--to get Google's story out to the world. The result was a combination of well-placed articles, company blogs written by real people, and genuine word-of-mouth buzz once people started realizing that Google had changed the Internet search experience.
That's been the standard operating procedure at Google ever since. However, as Google's breadth has increased, the search titan has moved into areas where it's competing against companies with deeply entrenched brands of their own, such as Microsoft in desktop business software or Apple in gadgetry.
That has prompted Google to experiment with ads for its products or services here and there. Google has run television commercials for Google Chrome. It purchased a very traditional magazine, billboard, and display advertising campaign over the last year to promote Google Apps.
The big surprise came in February, when Google aired a Super Bowl ad promoting the essential Google service: Internet search. At the time the company insisted it was a one-off ad, and not part of a larger strategy to move into mass-media advertising.
But it could have been a trial balloon. After all, Google doesn't like to make decisions unless it has data, and the most-watched television program ever had to produce a lot of data.
Google is in a tricky place at the moment as it tries to preserve its company culture amid a shifting industry.
Facebook's size and ambition shows that word-of-mouth and PR are still a very effective way to build a dynamic Web business, but also that the conversation marketers want to see and influence is moving more and more into a space that does not contain Google.
And in the next big computing market, Google is between the proverbial rock and a hard place, torn between building its Android technology as a successful competitor to Apple's iPhone by supporting partners while changing the way mobile phones are sold with the Nexus One by promoting its own phone.
"They've got a brand problem/opportunity," Battelle said, explaining that he believes Google will eventually shift its brand from search to software. This is a problem many companies would love to have: after all, most people who have ever used the Internet have encountered Google, and its market-share numbers prove they're sticking around.
But Google is getting old, at least by the hyperquick standards of Silicon Valley. It knows it needs to find a way to keep growing as Internet search growth itself levels off or--more importantly--becomes less interesting to product marketing teams with the development of sites like Facebook and Twitter that let marketers get even closer to the consumer. Google thinks that mobile search is still a huge opportunity, and it's right to say that, but it seems mobile ad platforms might evolve differently from desktop ones due to the size limitations of the screen.
That means Google will need to define itself as more than just a search company. It is seeking growth in areas with deep-pocketed competitors who, unlike Yahoo, Lycos, Ask Jeeves and the former MSN Search, have brands that are very well established in the consumer's mind.
And any politician worth their salt will tell you that if you're not out there defining who you are and what you hope to be, someone else will be glad to do it for you.