Every year, the market-research firm Millward Brown conducts a survey to determine the economic worth of the world's brands in other words, to put a dollar value on the many corporate logos that dominate our lives. Lately the firm's results have been stuck on repeat: Google has claimed the top spot for the past three years. The most recent report values Google's brand those six happy letters that herald so many of our jaunts down the Web's rabbit hole at more than $100 billion.
What's astonishing about this stat is how effortlessly Google seems to have earned the public's affection. Other companies Microsoft, Coke, IBM, McDonald's spend enormous sums to stay in the consciousness. Google, which makes most of its money from ads, rarely advertises itself. Telling the world how well it does what it does just isn't Google's way.
But Google's humility is being tested as never before. The firm's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., seem besieged by competitors gaining new momentum. Even nominal allies are questioning the company's motives and long-term plans. In July, Google's largest competitors, Microsoft and Yahoo!, agreed to work together in an attempt to dethrone it as the world's dominant search engine. The deal, which awaits government approval, would create a first: a tenacious, well-financed search rival.
Conflicts are beginning to take place in other areas where Google has ventured. That includes e-mail and office programs (Gmail, Google Docs), a cell-phone operating system (Android) and a Web browser (Chrome). Google scans and sells books, runs a phone system and is even working on a desktop operating system to rival Windows. CEO Eric Schmidt recently stepped down from Apple's board of directors because the two companies now compete in so many areas. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating a legal settlement between Google and the publishing industry over the company's book-scanning service, and Christine Varney, Justice's antitrust chief, said she sees Google as a "problem."
At the moment, Google's most pressing problem is Microsoft. The software giant is spending $100 million to market its new search engine, Bing and in the process, to get us all bummed about Google. Bing's slick ads are unavoidable and blistering. They suggest that Google is broken, that it rarely leads us to what we're looking for and turns us all into blathering zombies who spew out search keywords in casual conversation.
Microsoft claims Bing isn't even a search engine it's a "decision engine." What that means isn't exactly clear. Bing seems to work the same way Google does: type in some keywords, it gives you some Web results. But the marketing shows signs of gaining traction. According to the media-metrics firm comScore, Bing captured 8.9% of the search-engine queries in July, a tiny increase from 8.4% in June. "All of us in the search industry were surprised by Bing," says Anna Patterson, a former Google engineer who has since gone on to found Cuil (pronounced Cool), one of the many smaller search start-ups in Google's shadow. "It's the first time you have someone with deep pockets that's willing to lose money in order to compete with Google, and they're willing to stick with it over the long term."
Google says it isn't worried, and publicly at least, the company is pretending not to notice Bing. The search engine is Google's cash cow, and the firm constantly pours resources into improving it hiring the industry's brightest and most experienced engineers, paying them handsomely and letting them work on what is effectively the world's largest data-mining project. Just this month, Google unveiled a project it calls Caffeine, a massive overhaul of its back-end infrastructure that promises to create a faster, more accurate and more comprehensive search engine. "We aren't resting," says Gabriel Stricker, a Google spokesman. "We're continuing to innovate I'M FEELING LUCKY is getting luckier all the time."
This sort of constant improvement pays off: two-thirds of all searches in the U.S. are now conducted through Google about 7 billion a month. Yahoo! has less than 20% of the market, and Microsoft less than 10%. Despite Microsoft's claims, most people think Google works pretty well as it is.