If you have been anywhere near the Internet in the past decade, you might have heard of Google. In fact, you might even be reading this article on your Android phone, using the Google Chrome web browser, perhaps after receiving the link in your Gmail account. Where many Internet start-ups stick to one or two products, Google is constantly blazing ahead, expanding its range of products into just about every popular technology niche. Sure, the Internet has seen plenty of companies change focus and experiment with new angles on old products before, but what really sets Google aside as a case worth studying is the speed with which they did it all. In a few short years, Google has morphed from a small, efficient search engine into a tech juggernaut; a full-force software company big enough to take on the likes of Microsoft and Apple in any market. And interestingly, all of their best products come free of charge. In many respects, the rapid expansion of Google has forced Google to take an unconventional approach to marketing, an approach that has evolved in tandem with the company’s epic growth.
The Early Days
When Google first debuted on the Internet in 1998, very few people outside of Silicon Valley knew of the new search engine. Google was too young at this time to afford large-scale marketing efforts, thus their only product was marketed almost entirely by word of mouth. In late 1998, PC Magazine reported that Google, “…has an uncanny knack for returning extremely relevant results.” The magazine named Google as the search engine of choice in the Top 100 Web Sites for that year. This notoriety sparked the first wave of “Googlers,” (people who use Google). Googlers quickly became loyal to the service, recommended it to their friends, and helped to grow the user base.
At first, Google’s message was simple– they worked hard to create the world’s easiest, quickest, and most relevant search engine. Google had no taste for the bells and whistles their major competitors tacked onto their search engines. Services such as Yahoo! and MSN loaded their interfaces up with news highlights, photo, email account offers, and so forth. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, however, found this sort of approach unnecessary and irrelevant to their vision of an efficient way of organizing information based on relevancy. With this in mind, Google launched as a white page with a prominent, single search box in the center of the screen, with little else.
The Launch of AdWords
For the first several years of its existence, Google relied mostly on this word-of-mouth marketing. Though this is generally considered a dangerous tactic, it worked out beautifully for Google. Outside of the occasional press release, the company focused its efforts entirely on its flagship product and trusted its faithful user-base to spread the brand’s message. As the years passed, Google grew to immense popularity, winning award after award, and receiving frequent reviews and mentions in technology related magazines. This unconventional approach to marketing helped to cement Google’s image as company dedicated to results and quality rather than flashy advertising. And, Googlers loved the service because it worked.
In 2003, Google launched a new major offering – Adwords. Essentially, this platform allowed companies of any size to tap into Google’s immense user base by way of keyword-targeted advertising. The service was a major advancement for both advertising and marketing. In the early days of Adwords, Google was careful not to ruin its reputation as a minimal, user-friendly search engine, however. But there was a new issue — how would Google market its new service without offending its user-base? Google chose a very quiet marketing angle.
They put out press releases and allowed relevant magazines to cover their new service, but they did very little in the form of self-promotion. Quickly, search results came with small, innocuous reminders that you could now bid for advertising space on their keywords. Also, ads began popping up alongside search results that seemed to be related to the search query. Google relied on the sheer power and possibility that its new system offered marketers to essentially sell itself. And for the most part, it did. Advertisers didn’t need to be told twice about the opportunity staring them in the face to display their messages at the precise time searchers would be most inclined to click-through the ads. As more businesses bought ad space, Adwords attracted more interest from the business community who began to see ads in their search results and investigated how they could get in on the action. Adwords would soon prove to generate the bulk of Google’s revenue, which continues to this day.
Beta Stage And Invitation-Based User Acquisition
Another way Google has marketed itself has been by consistently releasing new products with a mystique-creating “beta” label. Traditionally, the word beta has been synonymous with “a work in progress” or “preview release.” Getting your hands on something during its “beta” stage is considered a real treat, as users are made to feel as though they have access to emerging technology before the masses. Google, however, cleverly leaves its products in beta phase for quite some time, and makes access into the beta stage relatively easy. Consequently, no matter when an individual user discovers Gmail or Google Wave, etc., for the first time, they still look and feel like beta-release technology for years after the release.
Compounding the exclusive feel that the beta label inspires is the way users are made to feel ‘special’ and ‘hand-selected’ by receiving invitations. Gmail (released in 2004) was the first Google product to be available to only an exclusive group of users, lucky enough to receive invitations. At first, it was considered an honor to send and receive messages via @Gmail.com. In turn, those left only on the receiving were left wondering why they weren’t chosen for an invitation (and subsequently jockeying for an invite from their friend; early users had 5 each, if I remember correctly), thus creating a snowball effect of buzz about the service. Demand for Gmail invitations became so intense that, according to Geek.com, some users were auctioning invitations to the highest bidders on eBay. The article reported that, “…bidding on eBay is active, with some sales getting upwards of 20 bidders. Buy It Now prices range from $65 to $125.” It should be noted that Google’s exclusivity-driven approach is the exact opposite of how most companies (particularly Internet companies) approach a product launch.
Typically, the mentality is to spread the word as far and wide as possible, bringing as many new users into the fold as the server can bear. Google, conversely, has consistently found success in keeping most people at arms reach initially, letting demand build up as much as possible.
The Product Explosion
Google’s IPO in 2004 gave Google provided an opportunity for expansion and development, and it was around this time that the world witnessed an explosion of new products from the search giant. Gmail, Google Docs, Google Earth, Google Street View, Desktop Search, and many, many more products came out of the Google Labs, seemingly by the month. And, each time Google stayed true to its conservative marketing nature. Each new product was briefly mentioned on their home page along with a link to check it out if a user were so inclined. It wasn’t long after each product launching, that the story would become Internet-wide, big-time news, sending fans of the burgeoning software provider to the download page to check out the latest innovations.
In 2006, Google made a big marketing move – the acquisition of popular online video website, YouTube. Although YouTube was not a profitable website bursting at the seams with revenue, it did offer Google a new user based of millions of dedicated users. It wasn’t long after the acquisition that YouTube viewers began to see short Google advertisements before their videos played. At the time, this was Google’s most direct form of advertising efforts to date, and it didn’t seem to upset users enough to alienate them.
In 2005, Google acquired Android Inc, maker of a mobile technology platform that they would spend the next year further developing. Google eventually released the open source platform, forming an alliance with many mobile phone developers including HTC and Motorola, as well as carriers such as T-Mobile. With the release of its mobile technology on several phones (including Motorola’s Droid, HTC’s Dream and Google’s own Nexus One,) Google has shifted much of its marketing thrust toward the mobile web. In conjunction with various manufacturers, Google now has its mobile technology advertised on television, on YouTube, on billboards and in shopping malls across America. By way of owning the world’s most visited website, Google has also been afforded the most valuable online advertising space for its own mobile phone, the Nexus One — on the homepage of Google.com.
Google: A Love Story (First Television Commercial)
Until quite recently however, the world had never seen a television commercial for Google or its products. It seems odd that a company able to grow so large as to debut on the Nasdaq stock exchange had never advertised on TV. During the 2010 Superbowl, Google’s first ever television ad aired. The ad told the story of a student falling in love while studying abroad in France. Eventually he marries the girl and they start a family. The interesting thing about the commercial is that the entire story is told through a series of searches, such as, “How to Say ‘you’re very cute’ in French”, to, “How to assemble a crib.” The ad can be viewed here.
For all of its growth, Google remains rather quiet – at least when it comes to traditional advertising and marketing. Perhaps this is indicative of their firm commitment to performance rather than image, or perhaps Google is still planning their biggest business move yet. Will we slowly begin to see more aggressive marketing efforts from them over the next several years? With a history as storied as Google’s, we may never know what to expect.