How can you compete with Google?

by jesse in , , ,


The official announcement (well, the addition of a website for it) of Google's goo.gl URL shortening service’s new website and features on the 11th got me thinking really hard about competition, and Google. Specifically - how do you compete against the biggest technological behemoth ever seen by man? Something I’m sure is on a lot of peoples’ minds at an increasing rate.

To be honest, many of these thoughts can probably be applied to many incumbents in the tech industry (including "enterprise" software/hardware giants), Google is an easy target for these thoughts though, because they are simply so bad at some of this. This is part rant, part thought experiment – it’s entirely possible I am entirely wrong.

What drove me to thinking about this (for well over a week) is a base terror I felt about the vague possibility of being in a market Google might whimsically enter at one point. Like, say I was bit.ly - and happily the most popular URL shortening and analytics firm with thousands of customers, millions of shortened links, etc, etc. How would I feel if Google coughed and suddenly entered an already tight (some would say artificial) market with all salvos aimed right at my business (bit.ly seems game)? Can an ecosystem of startups survive if Google pops into the room – can they still get VCs or Angel investors to listen and invest in them? (See also: whatifgoogledoesit.com).

It's not that Google suddenly came out with a "better" thing then bit.ly - Google simply came out with something which "does the job" to the technical specifications they think are superior, sitting on Google's nearly unbeatable infrastructure and then threw the weight of their brand behind it.

Does it have all the pretty analytics Bit.ly has? No. Does it have custom URLs? No. Does it need all of that? No, because it's made by Google. The UI is perfectly functional, but nothing to write home to mom about. Millions of people will flock to the new service and happily use it because it is Google. Bit.ly could very well now be on life support, and will quickly run out of oxygen when/if Google ever decided to give preference to goo.gl within their sites and applications (see the security argument in the announcements – how long until the other shorteners are deemed “too insecure”?).

The very thought of this possibility happening on something I work on terrifies me. I'm pretty confident on the technical prowess of the teams I work with and of the products we make, but I'll be damned if Google couldn't wipe us out with a "product" with 25% of the features we have, simply because of who they are. Maybe we could scratch by – maybe we already have an established user base. Maybe Google would kill their implementation in a few months – who knows.

But Google has a flaw, several, in fact.

Competing with Google on a technological level is incredibly hard - it's not impossible, just hard. They have more PHDs and engineers per square foot than just about anyone. I think that breathing the Googleplex air alone probably increases your IQ. I don’t know – I have some of the air on order. It's easy for Google to build something fifty percent of the way and release it, therefore sucking the air out of the room. They don't even need to "finish" it - the very fact they've made it and put it everywhere is enough to make a market dry up and users to flock to it. It will have enough functionality - and just enough - to get the job done (“perfectly functional, albeit Spartan”).

Google is good at raw functionality and utility. They solve a problem in normally the most efficient way possible, and Google is going to probably go down as the most successful technology company in history.

Where Google fails - time and again - is being human.

No one invites Vulcans from Star Trek to come and decorate cakes or entertain them at a party. No one accuses Vulcans of having "really good empathy and customer service skills". No, people call Vulcans when they need to figure out a hard problem, or need some objective analysis. They don’t expect balloon animals and a Dora cake from them.

Google is a utility/commodity technology company (an exceedingly shrewd and powerful one) - but Android wins market share because it's on more phones, not because the experience is better but simply because it's everywhere – it’s on more and more phones every day. Plenty of the manufacturers who have adopted it spent millions designing UIs that sit on top of the default Android UI and make it "more friendly". Every market they touch they fundamentally change the economics and expectations of.

Google has become top dog for a reason - their technology. It is really top notch and their search engine and adwords system changed the market (for the better), but it all shares the cold robotic embrace of the other Google products. Their technical skills are beyond reproach, but they still lose in many cases against smaller, "richer" applications and sites because they fail at being human.

Experience Matters.

To Google; you are a statistical note - something to be tracked, categorized and profiled. Why? Not though malice or ill intent - not even slightly - rather, it is how they aim their real business at you: Advertising. Google is not malicious, nor is it evil. Google is the logical robot who will tell you you've got cancer while asking for the time and not even blink. They continue interesting projects which could change humanity – but with the bedside manner of a toaster (note though - the cold, calculating nature of the projects doesn’t diminish the value).

When a competing company's users are statistics: show those statistics love and a human face and they will follow you to the ends of the earth. Incite passion – give them a relationship. A wise man once told me "the only way you can succeed against an entrenched player is by loving your users to death".

Love your customers - say you make a code hosting service - it's hard to beat free (as is Google Code) and it's hard to beat the fact that, yeah, they have all the basic features a code host should have - but you compete where Google can't. You beat them in the User Interface department - you beat them with warm, inviting documentation and a well designed, inviting website. You beat them by hiring a support staff that actually answers emails and picks up the phone. (See also: “Google Gets a C- from the Better Business Bureau”)

You compete against them by not being a cold, Spartan feature robot. You make your thing usable, you make it pleasant. You make it so that users want to come back to you again and again because each time they do they don't feel like they just got a hug from a Craftsman workbench. You make them feel like Mom just gave them a warm hug on a Christmas day every time they use your product. Not like making out with a socket set.

But, you say, Google can make a UI, right? Not quite - Google Wave may have been the best thing in the history of earth: but no one except a few people could figure out how to really use it. Technologically, it was awesome, usability? Not so much. It was a bag of technically accurate features – but not a human interface. It was a “social network” put together by Vulcans.

The biggest thing, in my opinion, that Google has brought to the human side of the technological table is that it has helped in recent years by bringing back a wave of minimalism, simplicity of interface and speed to web application design as a whole. In the right hands, minimalism and simplicity are powerful tools. When they're not in the right hands - well, hugs from a Craftsman bench.

So - in order to compete with Google, you attack them on design – on engagement. You make your social features and good customer service into the barbs of loyalty. You pick up that phone and let them know there's someone else at the end of the line willing to hear them out at 3am when everything goes to hell and they're all alone. Even if that customer is crazy, you show them the respect they deserve as people.

Get vocal, passionate users and build a loyal community - that alone will help you succeed against Google. Make sure your customers know you love them, know that you support them and want them to succeed. Don't just enable them to do something, enable them to connect.

Build a brand against Google. Don't be content with doing something - make sure you're not just "the guys that did that thing" - or "those guys who came out with that thing". Make your name synonymous with that thing. Make it so that the first thing people think of when considering that thing is you.

Make it so that Google could come out with - say a video sharing site - tomorrow, and while it could be the best, most distributed video thing ever (the better technological choice) make it so that your users are so fiercely loyal that Google has to buy you and extinguish the flames of the passion you've incited just to get the announcement for their new thing two minutes of air time.

You can only do these things - building a brand - and building a "cult" by doing the things Google - given its robotic failings - cannot do. Love your users, infect them with your passion - not just your technical prowess or ability to scale or release new web codecs, or give them the right search results, or giving away source – infect them with your passion for what you do. Support them, respond to them - even if you're giving it away for free - after all, nothing is free.

Passion, compassion - connecting with other humans, people are always looking for a place that accepts them and makes them feel welcome. They want to get real support instead of emails that get sent to unknown voids and are never answered. Making things warm, inviting both in language and in the feel.

Just remember - Google is a fantastic, nearly unbeatable technical powerhouse. You’ve got to be fast, high quality and better where it counts the most.

“What about Don’t Be Evil?”, you say. Again, this is not an accusation of Google being evil – they’re not. They’re being coldly logical in the way humans dealing with other humans aren’t. When Eric Schmidt, the CEO, stands up on stage and talks about privacy being dead in the age we live in (the age of Facebook, and Twitter), or the refuge for criminals – he’s not “being evil”. He’s representing the coldly logical, algorithm based view of a search engine, and advertisement company. (Check out duckduckgo.com)

In the age of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and online medical records and a million other things, the logical extension is that, yes – privacy will be dead in a matter of years. Look at the train wreck the buzz rollout was – they shipped with the logical, auto-following and auto-public settings and features.

However, nuking years of email or delisting someone’s website with no human recourse is evil, and therefore, can be used as a competitive advantage against them. Be more private, be available to your customers. I know it’s expensive – but it’s how you can win. First mover advantage counts for a lot, but it doesn't count for anything if you fail your community and users.

I use lots - and I do mean lots - of Google projects. I live in the lap of Google luxury as they give me free things that have "enough" features to sate my needs and requirements. They're pretty enough - sort of like my code editor. I'm not passionate about them, they're functional utilities (albeit incredibly useful ones) - and at this point I'd probably been inoperable without a few of them. Google is a verb - JGI (Just Google it) leaves my mouth an innumerable number of times through the day. I have lots of friends who work at Google. Google has released an amazing amount of open source software, and continue to work on changing the face of the Internet, and society as a whole.

But would I say their UIs are beautiful? No. Would I ever be convinced that sending an email about my account being broken or disabled to Google's support line would be met with anything but metallic robot silence? Do I think pleas to relist my website in their index or reinstate an adwords account would be any more effective then yelling at my garbage disposal? No.

No, none of these are true. Github (despite it being git) and bitbucket are the better UIs for code hosting - Wordpress and others are better hosted blogging systems then Blogger, and so on, and so on. These services probably don't scale as well, or they can't calculate the velocity of an unladen swallow if you hit control-m-x-y-*, but they compete with Google where it counts.

Compete with Google where it hurts the most: Being Human.