Google is about failure—the failure of brands.
Now that I’ve got your attention, let me explain. Google searches by online shoppers furnish a disproportionate number of mediocre or failed brands. The problem is laid bare not in the search results but in the search terms. Did Google create these branding problems? No, but Google usage reveals them. In fact, Google’s earning power is inversely proportional to the power of brands.
Who needs Google? I mean that as a literal question. Type any URL into a browser of your choosing, and you’ll be instantly delivered to the site you want. Every browser has a “favorites”-type feature built right in to speed us along, and the same browsers keep a history of where we have been so we can return with like ease. When we, as consumers, visit these sought-after sites, we know where we’d like to go. And it is because we know where we’d like to go that we don’t need Google.
Take, for example, the case of Amazon.com. Does anyone really type “books online” into a search bar? Everybody’s aware that Amazon is where you buy books online. I don’t know how much Amazon spends advertising with Google, but I suspect that very little of it has to do with books. In fact, on the day Google was formed, Amazon was a publicly traded, $600 million bookseller growing at more than 1,000 percent per year. Amazon founder/CEO Jeff Bezos was Time’s 1999 Man of the Year before anybody had even heard of Google, much less used it. The bottom line is that Amazon doesn’t use Google to sell books; Amazon doesn’t need Google to sell books.
Similarly, nobody Googles “online auction,” either, because everybody knows that eBay is where you can buy and sell things online in a bidding format. I don’t know how much eBay spends advertising with Google, but I suspect that very little has to do with helping people find an auction site. Like Amazon, eBay was a widely successful publicly traded Internet company before Google was conceived. When it comes to online auctions, eBay is a very strong brand.
Who is advertising on Google? Well, judging from Google’s reported revenues—$21.8 billion last year alone—lots of companies. But if you take a closer look, you’ll find that most of those companies are ones you’ve never heard of, the Plain Janes of their respective industries. The elephant in the room is this: Online shoppers don’t Google brands nearly as often as they Google generic categories and phrases. If Google had to make its living strictly off searches of brand names, you would have never heard of Google.
Searching amounts to the searcher saying to Google’s software: “I am interested in this specific category of goods or services, but I don’t know who the players are. Please tell me the names you think are worth knowing.” This scenario isn’t limited to searches for global or national companies. Every day, people do millions of searches for local businesses (someone in Altoona, Pa., needs a plumber nearby, say). The problem is not that a national search isn’t compatible with a local brand; the problem is that most businesses don’t possess brand power within a three-mile radius of their own offices. If money’s not an obstacle, you can pay for a great ranking on Google. But that’s not unlike soliciting a high-priced prostitute; it’s nice to know you can afford it, but it’s sad that this is where your money’s going.
Of course, it’s not Google’s fault that most brands don’t enjoy widespread name recognition. As I said above, Google isn’t the problem, but Google exposes the problem. Take a look at a Google ad—about six words. Now, you can deliver a tagline with six words, but that’s not the same thing as staking out a desirable position in the mind of your prospective customer. To an atheist, one church is about as good as the next. The typical Google searcher comes to a brand not because it’s superior or its reputation is well-known, but simply because it’s there—there on Google.
If you’ve ever stopped for a meal on a toll road such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you know three things: 1) You’ll be stopping at a burger joint because it’s the only burger joint to stop at, 2) you’ll be paying plenty for the burger and 3) the guy getting rich on that overpriced beef patty is the guy who owns that real estate, not the guy with the burger joint. Now, let’s do the metaphorical translation: Google owns the toll road, and Google owns all the real estate on both sides of that road. The searcher has selected a brand because Google has positioned the brand conveniently, not because the brand is otherwise preferred. Meanwhile, the only one getting rich and truly building its brand is Google.
If you want a sense of how strong your brand is, try this. Select the key words or phrases that you think would be used by consumers searching for the goods or services you provide. Then calculate the percentage of traffic coming to your site from searches on those key words and phrases versus traffic coming from people who knew your brand name to start with and typed it into their search bar. If most of your search traffic begins as a generic word search rather than a search for your brand name, put down your dog-eared SEO for Dummies and dust off your marketing texts because you have some serious brand building ahead of you. While you’re at it, remember: Great brands have to be built, but they’re not built on Google.
Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of online promotional products company Branders.com. Reach him at: JTMcLaughlin@branders.com.