Learning from Google’s innovation in search

From 2002 to 2007 Google took over most of the global market for search. They were very innovative. And it was hard to copy what they did.

What was so special about Google’s approach? Was the relevancy (“quality”) of their search results actually better? No… They delivered more or less the same quality of search for a long time. It just cost them much less to deliver that quality and the “experience” of using their search was a lot better.

There’s a lesson for anyone competing in high tech or business. Success can often not be about the “better” product but rather delivering more or less the same product at lower costs and / or with a better “customer” experience.


Back to learning from Google’s approach to innovation, I remember hearing an acronym coined by someone at Yahoo to explain Google’s success.


Money algorithm distribution.

Theoretically Google paid partners more… Had more relevant search results… And wider use of its search by other web sites. It sounded good. But it didn’t actually explain what Google was doing so well.

There had to be a reason that Google could pay more, display more relevant search results and have its search product used by more web sites (partners).

It wasn’t the algorithm.

Having more relevant search results is not where Google was really innovative. Those “better” results were a product of other much less “noticeable” innovations.

1. Technology for computer hardware, electricity and database computing.

2. User experience.

Innovation in technology

Google’s servers cost less, used less electricity and fetched results for search queries from the database more quickly and at a lower cost to computer memory.

This meant searches and crawling web pages needed to get information cost Google much less “per search” than it did for competitors.

It also meant much faster delivery of the product (“search results”) to visitors on Google.com or partners using Google APIs.

And… It also meant faster responses to requests for ads. Anyone who knows about web publishing will tell you that faster pages mean more money. No one likes waiting to watch a page load :-).

User experience

Google also had better user interfaces (UIs) and application programming interfaces (APIs) than competitors.

But it wasn’t the “look and feel”.

If you’re skeptical, compare these two homepages for Google and Ask.com back in March 2004.

Colors and logos aside, the only real difference between the pages was placing the logo and navigation in different areas and a plug by Ask.com to use its toolbar :-).

On the other hand,  if you were an advertiser or a partner you would have noticed

1. More options for customizing your use of the product.

2. More comprehensive documentation about using products.

3. Use of technologies like SOAP or JSON for faster rendering of dynamic content on the client side of the browser.

Where the competition couldn’t keep up

So it wasn’t relevancy (i.e. a “better” search product). It was speed, flexibility and ease of use. All of which were driven by product innovations on both the server and client sides. Not relevancy in search results.

If you’re still not sure, then know that in 2004 A/B testing for relevancy conducted by LookSmart showed that people clicked at more or less the same rate for search results from Google, Yahoo and LookSmart.

Even if the search results were different that wasn’t the perception as shown by click through rates.

On the other hand if you compared how quickly web pages or XML responses from each company’s servers loaded, the results told a very different story.

Google’s responses were a lot faster.

Similarly if you asked anyone about using their platform as a paying customer or partner, you would have heard Google’s products are easier to use and customize.

With faster loading pages and responses, more people came to search on Google.com than competitors.

This meant Google relied on partners a lot less than a competitor like LookSmart did.

It also meant Google could pay partners more than competitors could. With so much “owned and operated” traffic, partner payments were a smaller portion of overall revenue.

And using their platform really was easier. This meant other companies like the various bid management software or digital advertising agencies that drove advertiser demand for search ads…

Built products off of Google’s platform *first*.

Then they developed features off the platforms of competitors like Yahoo later. When they had time or there was some meaningful customer demand.

Finally, over the years, as Google’s search product was used on a much larger scale… There was more data about searches collected. That in turn led to a better algorithm :-).

So once again the lesson is you can win without having a better product… Just deliver the same quality at a lower cost to yourself and / or with a better user (customer) experience.