Mr. Google and Mr. Spock

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.

4 thoughts on “Mr. Google and Mr. Spock

  1. d. liman

    Good post. In general I agree with the premise that the other google services haven’t dominated their respective categories.

    How reliable is the Hitwise data though? Might it be better to do an analysis of google’s financial statements and see if the traffic numbers can be pieced together? Also are web services part of the Hitwise numbers? From what I hear, a lot more developers are building services on top of the google API’s. See for example this pie chart. With Web services and AdSense, it might not be necessary to have all that traffic bit their site directly.

  2. JG

    Might this sort of phenomenon be true at a more micro level as well? In addition to convincing us that they are “all about search”, the other thing Google sold us on was PageRank, with all these marvelous ideas in its mission statement about how it was making use of the Democracy of the Web, and somesuch.

    Now, you have Google expanding not only into maps and mail, but also into non-Web search, such as enterprise search, book search, etc. In all of these latter situations, PageRank is non-existent, because hyperlinks are non-existent.

    And you’ll notice that people aren’t really buying the corporate search appliance. The Google secret sauce has many ingredients, but PageRank was supposed to always be the basis of it all.. PageRank was Mr. Spock. And now that Google is doing search without PageRank, i.e. now that Nimoy is playing other parts, people still only see Google as capable, when PageRank is involved.

    That is my interpretation at least. Sound plausible?

  3. Nitin Goyal

    Geez, this has me totally confused. Two things come to mind when I see this post: Core Competence and Positioning. I do not think there is any argument against the fact that search is Google’s core competency. However, you may have a point in saying that Google is “positioning” itself as a search company, while the actual work it does to monetize its core competence is of a “stripped down” advertising agency. However, just how can it position itself as a portal when: 1. People do not think it is a portal (Re-positioning) 2. Its hard to take away the portal tag from Yahoo or MSN (De-position the competition)?

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