Google is the most Vulcanic of companies, and that may be a weakness as well as a strength. In examining data showing how the company is struggling to make inroads in web offerings outside its search core – even Gmail appears to lag far behind Yahoo mail – George Nimeh sees evidence of something he calls Nimoy Syndrome, after Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played the hyper-logical Vulcan Mr. Spock on Star Trek:
Google is so well known for doing one thing that when they try to branch out and play other roles, people continue to see them as the old character. Sure, when Google does something like GMail or Maps, people understand why – much the same way I understood why Nimoy would do [the TV series] In Search Of. However, it was really hard not to see Nimoy as Spock when he played Paris in Mission Impossible. The same can be said of Google: If it doesn’t involve search, then why should consumers choose Google? In this respect, Yahoo! has the edge. Yahoo! is a portal. That’s what it is by nature, and that’s what consumers expect.
I think he has a point. Google has us trained to think of it as synonymous with “search.” That’s been good for the company up to now, but such a narrowly drawn identity may well be a hindrance as Google moves into ever more lines of business. Yahoo’s less well-defined identity has hurt it in competing for search traffic with Google, but it helps it in promoting a range of other services.
What’s interesting, in this light, is how Google has been going out of its way recently – particularly at its Press Day last week – to emphasize that it is “a search company.” It seemed to me, as I watched the Press Day proceedings, that the repeated references to the centrality of search were aimed as much at an internal audience (the Google organization) as an external one. It was probably a sign of a cultural conflict in the company, maybe even an identity crisis, with some people intent on remaining a search company and others wanting to be seen as more of a content portal like Yahoo. Google’s success in expanding beyond its search core may hinge on how that conflict – if it indeed exists – is resolved. You can’t be more than Mr. Spock if Mr. Spock is all you really want to be.