Innovative or Not: Google

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Every so often we plan to take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.

Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.

This week Google Search comes under our microscope:

Not Innovative:  When someone tells you to look something up on the internet, you will most likely hear the phrase “Google it”.  Asking a Google user to try another search engine almost makes a person feel uncomfortable.  Although cited in numerous articles as being one of the most innovative companies today, was this search engine really innovative when it first started?  Back in 1998 (when Google went public) some of the top search engines used were AltaVista, MSN Search, and Yahoo!.  AltaVista used a fast multi-threaded crawler termed Scooter which covered numerous web pages and received 13 million queries per day.  It was a huge success and was earning millions within a few years of its launch.  Another powerful search engine at the time, Yahoo!, organized websites in a hierarchy as opposed to a searchable index of pages.  Yahoo! grew quickly along with its stock price.  Google emerged during this time with its own variation that returns based on priority ranking and offered Boolean operators for an option for customization.  Considering all the available search engines, and the power they had – returning web pages matching what a person looks for – why would one be considered more innovative than any other?  Although most utilized the same technology, some (like Yahoo!) were different and offered something unique.  Therefore if we were to consider the whole search engine landscape during this time, singling out Google as emerging with something more innovative than any other search engine is a rather difficult task to do.

Innovative: Google‘s main innovation was in ranking pages in a way that consistently returned higher quality results than the status quo.  This forced every other search engine to change their foundational algorithms.  In other words, it drastically disrupted the entire business of searching the internet; it’s the very definition of a disruptive innovation.

When Google began in early 1996, search engines still ranked results by an algorithm that counted how frequently search terms appeared on a page, and returned whatever page mentioned your search terms the most.  Today, we know this system is easily tricked and returns low quality results. Google’s innovation was called “PageRank”, a system that ranked pages by how often other pages linked to it.  Google treated every link to a page as a “vote” for that page, thus making the internet into a sort of democracy.  Also, when a page had lots of votes, its votes carried more weight, refining the system to be smarter and harder to trick.

Google went further though: their page worked faster than anyone else’s.  By building their unique homepage to be blank, except a search box, it loaded almost instantly.  In addition, their advertisements were text only, carrying the two-fold benefit of loading faster and being less annoying.

Google’s website offered a faster service that returned higher quality results, all based on a system in which people decided which websites were most useful.  Google didn’t just make a better, innovative search engine, they made the internet more democratic.

Judgement: Innovative! The definition of disruptive innovation is using existing technology to deliver what may appear to be an inferior product that meets the core needs of new and emerging market segments. When it first launched, Google, with its stripped down front page may have seemed lacking in comparison to existing (and successful) search engines like Yahoo! and Webcrawler. However, Google was actually disrupting search by identifying the core need of consumers – fast and relevant search results. Was this a radical innovation, incorporating new technology to outpace its competitors? No. But it was a massively successful example of disruptive innovation, transforming an industry by applying known technology in a new way. Doing search (and only search) very well allowed Google to become synonymous with the internet usage and to grow its business into all of its current segments.


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