Why It Will Be So Easy To Switch Away From Google Search

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Why It Will Be So Easy To Switch Away From Google Search


My friend and colleague Brian Halligan has written an exceptionally interesting article in his internet marketing blog  today titled “Why Google Will Set The Record For The Greatest Market Cap Loss In A Single Month”.  

I highly encourage you to read it, as it is a pretty thoughtful look at a relatively controversial topic (particularly given Google’s ability to defy it’s detractors time and time again).

Personally, I agree with Brian’s take on this (the two of us have discussed and debated this over the past week or so).  

I think the most important point made in the article is the lack of a real “switching” cost for Google search users.  As an example, if you’re an avid Google Reader user (that’s Google’s RSS reader), you are much less likely to switch to another product because you have an investment in their RSS reader.  You’ve spent time getting your feeds in.  You know the keyboard short-cuts.  You have trained your mind to scan information in the Google Reader user interface.  It would be non-trivial to get you to switch.  The longer you use it, the less likely you are to switch.  On the other hand, you probably use Google Search a lot more.  But, what’s your investment?  How hard would it be to switch?

Lets look at this a bit more deeply. 

Why It Will Be So Easy To Switch Away From Google Search
  1. Low Training Investment:  You have very minimal investment in Google Search.  Because it is so simple, you got use out of it right away (this was one of the reasons Google was able to grow it’s market-share so quickly in the early days).  Only a small fraction of Google’s users use the advanced features of it’s search engine (like boolean operators) and there’s no reason why the same syntax could not be offered in a similar engine anyways.

  1. Low Customization Investment:  You have not spent hours and hours “configuring” your Google Search experience to be what you want it to be.  Unlike other software applications (like if you use one of the web-based portals or personalized start pages).  If a new and better search engine comes along, it is unlikely you are going to think “Holy crap!  What am I going to do with all of my custom settings, configurations, etc.”.  There is no such thing.

  1. Easy Experimentation:  If you do suspect there is a better search engine, it is easy to “experiment” with it first.  You don’t have to make the complete switch-over immediately and abandon Google.  Perhaps you begin by just a few searches on the new engine (especially when Google isn’t delivering what you want).  Over time, you gradually determine for yourself whether the new engine is better than Google.  This ability to ease into a new tool would make it much easier for users to switch.  They can date before getting married.

  1. Better Results Are Obvious:  Let’s face it, we’ve all done searches on Google before where the results were less than satisfying. The average user doesn’t have to understand the details of the Google algorithm or the fact that Google has a world-class infrastructure of thousands of servers in order to judge the results.  They’re either what she wanted, or they’re not.  Each individual search user can make the determination as to whether the outcome was close to what was desired.  When testing one result-set against another, even a non-expert use can decide which is better.  So, if another search engine is better someday, it doesn’t have to be proven to be better, it just has to be better – in real-world user scenarios.    This is subtle, but important.

So, what’s your take?  Have you found yourself experimenting with the other search engines?  Do you have a sneaking suspicion, like I do, that Microsoft search has really gotten better over the last year and the gap between Microsoft and Google has gotten narrower?  Would you switch if a better solution came along?  Would love to read your thoughts in the comments.  

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Dec 04, 2006


That's an excellent point about the low switching costs. But there is also a kinsethic aspect to website use. Sometimes I go to search for something and I mean to use a different search engine, but I type GOOGLE anyway, because my fingers are so used to that. As the web becomes more voice and movement based, I think that last barrier will fade. Of course, in situations where point #4 holds true, it may overcome the kinsethic bias to type google.

posted on Monday, December 04, 2006 at 12:57 PM by Rob

I have a different take

Re: 1. Low Training Investment: I would not prefer to move away from Google unless the others too make it atleast as simple and preferably more mind numblingly-simple search experience for me than Google does.

Re: 2. I dont think a customer stays with a product just because she has invested a lot of time/effort customizing things. The time spent on customization is a sunk cost; so having a better alternative will definitely help her in the switch. Google actually had made it simple for the users to be able to make that swtich from other badly designed search sites we had prior to it.

The first three points are design choices that Google had pioneered to make the user experience superlative. Speed and good results made it far better.
But yes, I would not mind switching if the other search is better on atleast one of the 4 point you raised.

posted on Monday, December 04, 2006 at 1:01 PM by kopos

Over the past few years both Yahoo and Microsoft have caught up with Google in terms of end user search results. If you play with all three for a short period of time this becomes pretty clear.

Booth Yahoo and Microsoft have a long way to go in terms of creating an efficient advertising monetization engine. But they both have resources and can do it.

With that said, in my mind general search has become pretty much a commodity. When that happens lots of different things can create winners in the marketplace.

Coke does not win becuase it tastes better or has a better brand, it wins because it has better distribution. The same concept won the Microsoft/Netscape browser wars and I think the same will apply here.

Watch what these companies do in the context of it is all about distribution.

posted on Monday, December 04, 2006 at 1:30 PM by Lance Weatherby

Me too competitors are definitely a threat. Competitors who inovate and fragment the market are even more of a threat. These are natural processes that occur in almost any market.

I can imagine searches that locate sports other topic specific information with relavent search choices tailored to the topic. The competitiors could possibly access information not available to Google, unique user settings, user notification and much more.

Nearly all information technology companies are at risk from from these threats, but Google has probably more exposure than anyone due to the ease of switching.

posted on Monday, December 04, 2006 at 1:48 PM by MBA Guy

Yes, it is easy for anyone to switch from Google but my mom knows Google. How easy do you think it is easy for her to hear and use another search engine. It is the "good enough" problem in my mind. When Google came out it was significantly better than anything else. All other search engines just have minor improvements and nothing "holy shit" that makes me want to use something new.

posted on Monday, December 04, 2006 at 2:38 PM by noah kagan

I think that there in addition to result quality, branding plays a large roll in whether or not users switch from Google.

The extent to which people view the Google brand as a garauntee of quality and feel comfortable with it increases the 'cost' of switching or even experimenting with other search engines.

posted on Monday, December 04, 2006 at 2:58 PM by JTP202

Switching from Google reader...

1) Export feeds to OPML file
2) Import into new reader
3) Start reading
4) When you have time learn shortcuts.. all I use right now is Go-All (GA), J (next) K(back). Go-Home (GH)

Google reader is not a big investment. They kept it simple, which makes it easy for competitors to copy.

So let me pose another question - why is Google a must have vs. a nice to have?



posted on Monday, December 04, 2006 at 4:17 PM by Peter Cranstone

Nope. No way, until another SE do much more. MUCH more.

posted on Monday, December 04, 2006 at 4:52 PM by ganges

The reason people rushed to Google in the early days was because it was much much better than all the alternatives. If search was rated on a scale of 1-100 Google in 1998 was about 90 and the next best about 5. Even if MS and others are better now, they will only get to 92 or 93 so there won't be the wow factor over using Google and the majority of the population will stay put. Plus people don't like giving MS any more of the computer pie than it has already - witness Zune's flailing.

The threat to Google in the long term doesn't come from MS, it comes from a small company cracking local search. The search function on gmaps is absolutely terrible.

posted on Monday, December 04, 2006 at 5:03 PM by Rob

Completely 100% agreed. You guys are geniuses. I never realized until I read this article just how overvalued and overhyped GOOG is. I am selling my shares in the morning.

Thank you for the great analysis and for provoking such illuminating discussion!!!

posted on Monday, December 04, 2006 at 5:04 PM by Sergie Romanov

hi there,

I use firefox most of the times. I use the search box. If I do find that other search engines give better searches on a consistent basis (say , for my next 100 searches), then I would be likely to try that search.

I notice that google lets me to log into the google search so that they can personalize my search. I'd think that over time, they will get better at this. If indeed, by the time, the competitors reach parity, but if the personalized search makes google better, I might prefer google.

But, unlike ordinary users, I use some advanced google commands. I know that there is not much that prevents other search engines from making those advanced google searches compataible.

As a user, I don't particularly care for the ads that come (90% of the time). So, google's better ad engines don't quite make much of a difference to me.

So, where does that leave me ? I use google's other apps although not as much as google search.
Today, I use gmail, reader, search, docs, maps, blogspot and photos from google.
yahoo : mail, photos, delicious and maps
msn : hotmail

I'd like to think that as long as I continue to use multiple google apps, then I might be interested in using google search. If and when a competitor to google improves their search, then i might be likely to switch over my other apps as well! So, in a way, I believe that what
Brian said is kinda true but that likely won't happen in a month's time but I'd give the competition 6 years to slowly erode on google's base.


posted on Monday, December 04, 2006 at 7:54 PM by anjan bacchu

I used to use Altavista back in the day. Then I moved to Google. I completely expect another search engine to come in and displace google. Only a matter of time.

posted on Monday, December 04, 2006 at 9:36 PM by bobo jenkins

Funny, I recently mentioned the low switching cost typical of most Web applications (especially search) as a reason why Google will continue to do well if it sticks to its philosophy of doing one thing well rather than taking care of everything well enough not to make switching worthwhile (the Microsoft approach).

Two observations:

1. The elephant in the room is that a lot of people think Vista and IE7 threaten Google. I don't agree, for a couple of reasons, but especially, because IE7 and Vista defaults are overridden by a number of Google-friendly applications and hardware manufacturers.

2. Thanks to more open standards, one-stop solutions will become less important as opposed to a combination of different solutions. With its APIs, Google has embraced that new mentality, and I think their dependence on the popularity of the Search Engine is overrated. Examples: Context adds embedded on third party sites will continue to pay off however the user got there. Or: If I want to integrate my web application with a calendar application, Google will make it easy for me to do so, thus encouraging me to encourage my users to use their calendar.
Admittedly, if there were to be a huge user exodus in the course of, say, the next months, it would still be a catastrophe for them. However, as to a huge mass switch to MSN or Yahoo for Internet search in the near future, I just can't see it. And in the not so near future, I suspect Google will have continued to decrease its dependence on Internet search, so it won't hurt them so much.

posted on Tuesday, December 05, 2006 at 3:54 AM by Christian Flury

Dharmesh, I'm shocked that you would write such worhless drivel!

I'm beginning to question as to whether or not I ought to continue reading Onstartups and Small Business 2.0 on a daily basis.

posted on Tuesday, December 05, 2006 at 5:54 AM by Sheamus

Sheamus: Ok, granted this is by far not my best work, but I think it's at least half a notch above worthless drivel.

Lets just call it drivel of questionable merit and move on.

We'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming later this week.

posted on Tuesday, December 05, 2006 at 12:23 PM by


posted on Wednesday, December 06, 2006 at 11:41 AM by Larry Page

Couple of thoughts:

1) The point of search isn't allegiance to any particular company, it's about a user finding the best results with the least effort & time. Anyone that does a broadly better job is likely to win. Furthermore, I would bet that 90%+ of Google users do not use any of the advanced features or have any clue how Google works. If typing "find what I want" gets better results on some new site, they'll change in a heartbeat.

To get really good results on Google you still have to type in "google-speak" and click through a bunch of results to find what you want. If someone else does better, they'll win.

It wasn't that long ago that Altavista was the best engine. And then came Google. I've not seen a real Google killer (anyone remember AllTheWeb.com?), but I've seen some promising ideas.

2) I think Google's real weakness is their revenue model. First of all, they are a one-trick pony -- it's all advertising dollars. If someone comes up with a better model, Google will lose large chunks of revenue and it will happen quickly.

Secondly, they've been amazingly reluctant to do anything meaningful to combat click-fraud. One of my former companies used to spend a big percentage of our advertising budget on online ads and the returns did not justify the expense. We believed that was at least partially due to click-fraud. When we questioned the numbers presented one month, the company concerned (not Google, but a big player) basically said "oops, yeah, those were wrong" and amended our bill. No proof. No denial. And NO indication that this wasn't the case with every other month's bill.

Click-fraud and online ads that don't generate adequate returns are HUGE problems and Google aren't addressing either in a meaningful way.

Anyone that thinks Dharmesh's post on this topic is drivel has his/her head waaaaay too far up their own Google...

posted on Wednesday, December 06, 2006 at 12:40 PM by fewquid

It may well be true that there are low barriers to entry in desktop search, or even in search in general. But I don't think that possibility is relevant.

What's distinctive about Google is its technology for getting large amounts of data rapidly off large disk farms built out of cheap components. While in theory anyone else can do the same thing, in practice only Google manages it. It is exactly the technology needed to provide video on demand on a global scale. Google's value is that it has a sporting chance of owning the world's television infrastructure in a relatively few years.

posted on Friday, December 08, 2006 at 5:12 AM by David

"They just use the little search field which defaults to there and so far i have never met a firefox user who had the default changed to any other search engine"

You've met one now. I've never noticed that Google search bar in Firefox. I use Firefox daily. I have a special jump off page for all my favourite sites. Google, Ajaxian, OnStartups, etc all on it. I hit home then click Google. I know quite a few software developers that have taken the "jump off page" concept the way I do it.

snap.com is the best take on a search engine I've seen recently. Will be good when they finally get the screen previews sorted out.

The article is an interesting take on search, but I don't think its going to be an issue. There will be four top tier search engines (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Snap) and
the rest. Snap aren't there yet, but I think they will be (one of the founders was the guy that thought up the monetization of search results concept).

posted on Friday, December 08, 2006 at 3:02 PM by Stephen Kellett

Most common Internet folks don't go looking for the cutting-edge search engine, they use the one their friends recommend, or simply the one that just works right most of the time. Google has been challenged on all aspects of search, index-size, correctness, customization, interface, and so on.

Secondly, the day *everybody* stops using Google as a reference point - thats the day I will stop using it as my personal search engine. I believe Google is like the *french metric system* or the *dewey decimal classification system*. That is a huge investment.

One example of where Google has been kept out of contention is China - and there too, Baidu has done what Google has done for the rest of the world.

- Santosh

posted on Sunday, December 10, 2006 at 10:19 PM by santosh

Very interesting take. I agree with many of the points, but if a better search engine comes along you can bet Google with buy the technology before they get too powerful :)

posted on Monday, January 01, 2007 at 5:02 PM by Eric

Already made the switch away from Google. I find it entirely maddening that pretty much on a random basis I find UK entries topping the list. Especially when I am doing product selection research.

I have gone towww.mamma.com. Practically the same content, and a relationship on the results that I used to get from Goggle a year ago.

posted on Friday, January 05, 2007 at 11:56 AM by JohnMc

The barrier to switching is reduced by the browsers and
their search-bars. Whatever is the default there, this is what
most people will use, and that's why IE7 tried to make Live the default.

Despite offering alternatives later on, how many non-techies do you think are changing the default search engine of IE7?

posted on Friday, January 05, 2007 at 8:41 PM by JimS

Certainly not worthless drivel. Agree that Google will go the way of many others in terms of price. Like others I used Altavista, Lycos, Yahoo and when Google recently blocked my employer and required image code verification I turned back to yahoo without noticing any issue.

posted on Monday, February 12, 2007 at 7:12 PM by Peter Boyle

Loved the article. what you have said is right. Its their simplicity which has attracted them this traffic and as you say the very same simplicity can let people go. But the fact is unless if the results arent satisfying or they continously give you bad doughnuts, one wont even think about switching, and in case someones switches, what you have told will "just happen".

posted on Wednesday, November 19, 2008 at 4:15 AM by Cyriac

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