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7 Reasons Google Slipped When It Copied Microsoft Bing

The other day, Google (GOOG) took a break from its usually austere search page look and added big, beautiful photos. Just like Microsoft (MSFT) Bing. Everyone noticed -- it was hard not to -- and the Buzz-like "We'l do it -- uh, maybe not" vibe was a hit in the press.

Google immediately backpedaled, pulling the images down off the default view, though logged-in users could still choose an image of their liking. But the decision to ape Microsoft's look-and-feel was still a big mistake for seven reasons that offer some useful management lessons:

  1. Brands are more than advertising campaigns and graphic design. For better or worse, they are distillations of how companies do business. Google's brand is bound with the clean and elegant look of the search engine page. It says, "Get what you want with no messing about." By changing that fundamental statement on its front page, Google effectively turned its back on its brand.
  2. By snubbing its own brand, even for a few hours, Google planted the seeds of doubt. Brand and business depend on rationale. A company does something in a particular way because it thinks that makes the most sense for its customers. The actual mechanics of the search engine are invisible. By visually suggesting that Microsoft had a good idea with Bing, Google essentially implied that maybe using the competitor's service wasn't such a bad idea.
  3. Google clearly wanted to attract the search engine customers that Bing has gained. That assumes a company can, and should want, to get all customers. You might as well ask a fast food chain to attempt fine dining at the same locations that sling burgers. Now, if Google created a different site and brand for shoppers, say, that was powered by Google, maybe that would have worked. But it didn't.
  4. Google ticked off many existing customers, leading to a backlash. Sometimes temporarily offending customers is necessary, like when Facebook introduced the news feed. But Facebook ultimately had its customers' interests in mind, and rebounding use proved it. Google was pandering.
  5. Google put attention on Bing and gave consumers reason to wonder whether Microsoft, after all, might have a better service, as Google was imitating it.
  6. Because Google let people choose images anywhere on the net, it at least potentially opened itself to copyright litigation. (Like it hasn't had enough issues in that area already.)
  7. Google doesn't have the intestinal fortitude to stick with a decision. The company introduced Buzz, got some flack, and immediately backed down. In that case, it was clear how big the mistake was. However, often you often have to stay the course to learn whether an idea was good or bad. Google has shown itself to be a child chased by a wave. That telegraphs indecision and a lack of belief in what it does.
Sometimes what appears as a simple experiment can have enormous repercussions. No, this won't have a huge impact on Google, and it's not as though this was close to a turning point in the company. However, the action likely did plant seeds that, over time, might turn into customer defections.


Image: Erik Sherman