Can Microhoo Get Searchers to Kick Their Google Habit?

If competition for Google is still “just a click away” — as its executives kept saying last summer to anybody who would listen — then the U.S. Justice Department and the European Commission made that click easier with their decisions this week to bless the Microsoft-Yahoo search technology merger.

Here’s the new search query for this latest development: Will consumers get the hint? Can the same forces that helped turn “Google” into a verb be re-routed by any other search engine, let alone one comprised of two of the biggest names in the technology industry?

A Reasonable Second Banana?

Eight months of research by the Justice Department turned up enough evidence that competition is needed in the space. “The proposed transaction will combine the back-end search and paid search advertising technology of both parties,” states the DoJ statement announcing the end of its investigation. “U.S. market participants express support for the transaction and believe that combining the parties’ technology would be likely to increase competition by creating a more viable competitive alternative to Google, the firm that now dominates these markets.”

Doubts remain that Microsoft/Yahoo search can claw its way up to become a viable Pepsi to Google’s Coke; much work remains before the combined search effort can make a dent in nearly a decade’s worth of consumer habits.

“As long as the technology we know is ‘good enough,’ the vast majority of us won’t move despite how good the replacement is,” Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst of Enderle Group, told the E-Commerce Times. “The challenge for any competitor is to make the existing dominant product appear undesirable. You saw Apple do this with their PC vs. Mac campaign, Verizon with the coverage wars and Android, and GM has recently been pounding on Honda and Toyota.”

There are potential chinks in Google’s armor; questions of trust over Buzz privacy and China, and a company that’s extending its tendrils into more and more fields and away from its core product. However, Microsoft has its own trust (anti-trust?) issues and has only recently shown a willingness to get aggressive and smart with its marketing. “So while Google is vulnerable, Microsoft is currently poorly positioned and has demonstrated an unwillingness to broadly market against this kind of vulnerability,” Enderle said.

Attacking Google Users’ Habits

It’s not just a case of consumer habits — of Google being a default home page, according to Ken Saunders, president of Search Engine Experts. Most users wouldn’t know from the outset whether a Bing or Yahoo or Ask.com is providing that much more or less of a successful result. “If a search does not return what a searcher was looking for, they tend to think that they entered a bad term and will try something more and/or less specific,” Saunders said. “I would think that very, very few people actually compare the result from one engine to another. The group mentality helps — ‘Everyone is using Google so it must be the best.'”

However, it’s also a case of a company getting aggressive into other areas, such as email, maps, navigation, mobile services, not to mention operating systems for desktops and smartphones. “The branding definitely helps,” Saunders told the E-Commerce Times. “People know that Google is not just search. It’s the composite of all their products, and most of them are free, so people feel good about using Google.”

Aside from stumbles like the privacy issues in the new Buzz social media service, “I’ve not heard any disenchantment about Google. If anything, the more people learn about Google — Google Apps, that it owns YouTube, which many people don’t know — they feel that Google is doing a lot for them, so they like it,” Saunders said.

A Scattered Google

Google’s touch isn’t always golden, and despite its reputation for innovating in a variety of areas, there are other companies doing more unique things in the search arena, said Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence. Voice search, peer-to-peer services like Aardvark (which Google has bought) that allow live, human responses to queries, and more use of social recommendations can help take the core tenets of search into new directions. “There are interesting things on the periphery that may force Google to respond,” Sterling told the E-Commerce Times. “They have so much cash and are protective of their franchise. They will, for example, spend the money to buy Aardvark.”

Then there are previous efforts like local coupon/offers aggregation and Google Checkout — projects that either didn’t pan out or continue to struggle for standout success. “Just because Google has a product doesn’t mean it will succeed,” he said.

There is a good reason, however, why Google has grown so big, has accumulated that much cash and has garnered the interest of federal and European regulators. “Google is more than habit. It’s useful, fast, works generally well for people — they get the information they need. And Google is also innovating all the time. They are doing all kinds of things across the board. There’s maps, which Microsoft is trying to match or exceed. There’s mobile, email, a whole bunch of products and service that Google has developed that are useful to people, and each of those products is a touchpoint with consumers.”

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