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Google Likes To Steal Other's Thunder

In the office, Rich and Greg were noting that some of Google's recent announcements had some pretty interesting timing. To wit:

* This past Tuesday, Wolfram Alpha announces its structured data search product. On the same day, Google announced its new structured data product.

* July 28, 2008, so called Google killer Cuil launched its search engine. It claimed that their index of 120B documents was 3x that of any search engine. Three days before though, Google announced it knew of 1 trillion URL's.

* June 3, 2008, Wikia Search launched a feature that allows users to add and delete URL's to search results. July 16, 2008, Google announced that it is bucket testing similar features. The features went live a few months later.

* February 25, 2009, Cuil announced it is integrating longer snippets into its results. March 24, 2009, Google announced...you guessed it....longer snippets.

So what's going on here? Greg's reaction to this was that it was atypical of a market leader to be so reactive to "the competition" (if that's what you call companies that have a minuscule share of the market). He's right. Can you imagine Walmart making wholesale changes to its stores because mom and pop's store on the corner implemented some neat features for its customers?

I guess the fact that there are zero switching costs for search engines makes their paranoia run a bit higher than most.....


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Comments (12)


Don't forget announcing Open Social when it was mostly just a spec. To take the wind out of Facebook's sales when they were at their hottest.

And Knol when Wikipedia was really getting popular with the mainstream. (That one didn't work out, though).


What exactly are you expecting Google to do? Copycatting is one of the driving forces of competition. If one person has a good idea, the other people will take that idea too, forcing a new round of someone being the first to come up with an idea that trumps the others.

The fact that Google can replicate these so easily to me shows that they aren't actually very good or even insightful ideas. And your second example is an idea on how to market, which has been around for ages in various forms of "Mine's bigger than yours."

Very interesting, Mark. One thing I'd point out about your contrast between Google and Walmart is that Sam Walton was actually obsessed with visiting other retailers and trying out things that he saw were working well for others. Store greeters, a company cheer, and the whole concept of a discount club are a few examples of ideas Walmart has taken from other retailers. I'd highly recommend his autobiography, Made in America.

Microsoft has been doing that sort of thing for a long time. And Google has been becoming more like Microsoft in various ways. Once a company gets to be a certain size, and already has lots of eyeballs and dollars flowing their way, and also has an army of smart-but-naive/desperate engineers on staff, it probably gets easier to just copy what other folks are doing. Some manager inside points at something a competitor is doing or has announced, and tells a few engineers to make it happen.

There are other factors, like bureaucratic inertia, that works against that, but still, I think this "me too" factor is a pretty strong reason why it happens. If you have lots of money AND lots of engineers, I think it becomes easier to do either one of the classic "Buy-or-Build" choices.

I guess the fact that there are zero switching costs for search engines makes [Google's] paranoia run a bit higher than most.....

Or they think that the differentiating point that a burgeoning company markets themselves by must be a point of interest for users and may make their offering better and so is worth a try.

Plus they have free advertising for that feature by virtue of the buzz on it that the new launch is creating.

... and what you said.

David Haddad:

I can imagine walmart doing wholesale changes to its stores based on mom and pop stores' new features and tacics. It wouldn't be such a good idea if every feature gets copied into all of walmart's stores as soon as it is discovered. But if walmart is consistently watching what's going on in its ecosystem and testing flavored versions of those new tactics in select stores to get feedback and see if this is something they want to do on a larger scale, then hats off to them.

And that is what Google is doing. They are not copying features into the main product. You said it yourself that they are bucket testing or launching seeds of products that may or may not go forward depending on how well the experiment goes for them. And that's a great strategy to follow if you have the resources for it.

David Gowers:

Because Google programmers have a certain amount of eh.. 'free programming-project time' each week, it's also very likely that when they spot these neat features, one of their programmers have already been experimenting with an implementation (cause, of course, the programmers spot and like cool features too :) I'd guess a lot of the time, they just have to develop an integrate a pre-existing project, which puts them in a very good position to quickly play catch-up.

Rob Raymond:

I have always been curious what would happen if there was a grass roots movement for people to switch their default browser to say yahoo for a week. What kind of chaos would occur with Google's bottom line? Although switching costs are not high, inertia is very high so this is completely theoretical until a new search site grabs peoples attention.


Its a disturbing sign that maybe the marketing/strategy guys are holding too much sway. Lets hope they don't lose their grand vision.


all good comments - unfortunately, they were sent to my spam folder in gmail so I didn't see them until now - sorry for the delay in getting them up....


Looks like Matt Cutts has posted a response:

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