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February 25, 2008

Google's Lock-in

Hal Varian argues in the latest post from Google's main blog that "if you look at Google's business, the competition is only a click away. Users can trivially switch search."

While it may seem easy to change your search engine, the reality is that it's difficult. Google is the default search engine in Firefox, Opera, Safari and it becomes the default search engine if you install any Google software and stick with the default options. Google is the default search engine in many people's minds and it's also a name synonymous with searching on the web. Google is the default homepage in Firefox and many people choose it because it loads fast. Google replaces the address bar and it's no longer a web site, it's part of the browser.

Because it's deceivingly simple, people don't treat Google as any other web site. Google is a core feature of their browsers and don't realize they could change it. Even when they find out that Google could be replaced with Yahoo, Live Search,, people don't change it because they've already created a connection with Google, learned its tricks and accepted its flaws.

You first accept Google as a browser feature, start to rely on it for things that are important to you. When you learn about possible replacements, you'll start to judge them using Google as a standard and they'll mostly likely fail.

Google camouflaged into a browser feature, into a word, into the default gateway to to the web.


  1. I think you touched the exact reason Google continues to dominate: most users have learned how to use *Google*, not Ask, Live, or Yahoo!. Each has its own niceties and ways to craft better search strings, but most have learned to only successfully search on Google or Google-powered search engines. So when they try to search "Google-style" on Ask or Yahoo!, they don't get nearly the quality of results they'd get if they put the exact same thing into Google, so they go back to Google and don't switch at all.

    And absolutely - as Google continues to become a core "feature" of the browser, more and more will learn to use Google instead of the others.

  2. Not realizing that something can be changed is not the same as being unable to change it - which would be a genuine lock-in.

    I think that Google dominates search because it's by far the best product, not because people are unaware of alternatives.

  3. "Google is default search engine if you install any Google software"

    How is this any different from software from other search providers? Why would a search provider create a software package with one of their competitors as the default search engine?

    You wouldn't expect Yahoo's toolbar to default to searching through MSN, so why make a deal out of Google defaulting to their own product.

    Furthermore, Google is only the default search engine in most Western countries. Localized browser installs for (for instance) Asian countries such as China don't default to Google.

  4. Google isn't just the default search engine. It features many online apps that the more people use the more they become involved in using google. Gmail is a good example

  5. I understand the point, but it's not universally true. I switched to Google from another search engine (AltaVista) and I think a lot of other people did too. I also sample other engines when I'm not satisfied with Google's results -- it's easy to do because other engines are in Firefox's search bar. That can't be uncommon.

    Google got popular by offering better search results. Sure they can coast a bit, but they're right to recognize that switching search engines is pretty simple. Browser suppliers could choose a different default.

  6. Ha...the post above strikes me as funny because the same exact post could have been written about IE during the Antitrust suit.

    yet, since it's darling google and not big bad MS, no one cares.

    The more things change....

  7. There are other search engines?

  8. Every body at Yahoo or MS knows that Google is your default search engine..

    When was the last time.. A tool bar software was injected while installing Messengers or other software from Yahoo or MSN.

    That's what they want. Capture the market share back from Google.. Unsuccessful so far..

  9. Yes, Google IS the default - despite Windows and IE's dominance. In fact, Google's default status probably happened as a direct response to the previous lack of choice.

    People CHOOSE Firefox and Opera to get away from MS, just as they CHOOSE to make Google their default if they stick with IE.

    Yes, it's dominance - but nothing antitrust about it.

  10. Good grief's called "Brand Awareness"... for anyone who used to Yahoo it, or Alta Vista it, or Webspider it, or it (or whatever I used to use). Seriously, they've just done that good of a job creating the best search engine with the most relevant results, and then marketing the bejeebus out of it. You aren't stuck with it...if you think you are, maybe you don't need to be using a computer, or you don't need to be so uptight about what search engine you use.

  11. More people visit the Google website than use the built-in search box in the browser. And at least in Firefox' case Google became the default engine for the search box _after_ it was clear that it was wildly popular with its users. So I don't think either of those points is particularly strong evidence that most of Google's users are "locked in" in any way. Part of the rest of your post touched on the same point Varian made -- users can go to other search engines, but they don't get the same experience, whether that be result quality, page load speed, or whatever other metric they care about. That's not lock-in. That's called "execution".

  12. With "lock-in", I think the point is that while it may be a little tedious to change your default search engine, it's not that hard and you don't lose files because they're in incompatible formats, find yourself unable to run your old software or suddenly not be able to interoperate with everyone else. Since the effort to switch is so much less, Google would have to annoy you far less to get you to switch than (say) Windows would, and moreover it's a lot easier for someone to enter the market with a better search engine and take market share than it would be to do so with another OS.

  13. The surfers prefer Google to other search engines due to a hidden cause: the Information Retrieval system, and the ranking algorithm (Pagerank), that are different from those used by (for example). Comparing the listings of the two search engines for the same query, the surfer notices some differences and due to the Google popularity (the psychological effect) he is convinced that
    the Google's list is what he is looking for.

  14. I am with the many people who switched to Google many years ago and have stuck with it since. If you don't remember what it's like to use another integrated engine, go to a new version of IE and type something that doesn't end in ".com" into the search bar. With Firefox and Google, I can type the name of my favorite web comic and be there, with any other engine, I have to sift through at least three results, and this is MUCH better than the days of AltaVista and original Yahoo! domination. I was on the web in an era where these were the only search engines, and they simply never worked as well as Google. Even these days, when I accidentally search in MSN using IE, I will go to Google and do the search again because it is intuitive and it saves me time. IMDB, Wiki, and Craglist, all of which provide good specialized searches, do relatively well as gateways.

    I honestly remember spending hours trying to find basic information for middle school projects in other engines. By the time I was done with high school, I could plug into Google Scholar and get real journal articles directly pertaining to my topic in minutes. Google isn't taking the market by adapting customers to a product, but by adapting products to customers, and if we customers desire browser integration, then a smart company would provide that.

    I should mention that it took me all of five seconds to change my default home page in FireFox (I would rather open iGoogle, Gmail, Craiglist and Wikipedia all at once). I don't see other Internet search engines supporting open source, api's or easy to access help files in nearly the same way as Google. Small wonder the open source movement supports Google.

  15. I don't agree. Google is simply the best search engine. That is why I switched to google years ago. Before Google I used a Dutch Search Engine.
    And the first time I tried Google I didn't like it, but after a couple of times I noticed the results where simply better, and I started using Google instead.

    So I think the switch to a different search engine isn't that hard to make. If another SE is better, people will use it.

  16. As we said in France about our scientists, we can find search engines that search results but if you want to find search engines that find result then go to Google.

  17. Google is the best, that's why people use it! Not because it's default and they get used to it. For some reason it was picked to be the default search engine for some browsers, simply it's the best. there is not even close competition.

  18. I had to buy and finalize a computer for a friend of mine. It came with pre-installed Windows Vista, Firefox and almost every Google software that is available, since the vendor had a deal with them.

    It really took me hours to get rid of all this Google software. Try to deinstall the Google toolbar from Firefox and Internet Explorer and you learn some really weired logic...

    I know for sure that no normal user could have ever removed all this Google software again from such a computer. That much about "lock-in".

  19. What's wrong? Is Lock-in evil?

    I am not sure, and I don't mind much, as most existing business models in today capitalism worlds are just trying to lock customers in.

    As long as I can be free technically and legally, I don't really mind being locked in a product or a company. I have choices, and this is my choice.

  20. The real problem with search engines is that if you try to look up something that isn't found, then you get responses like Buy it now at Amazon. That's stupid. If it isn't found, why return anything like that?
    People who are most concerned (and shocked) with anything being their default engine are users who have little experience with computers, and probably can't change it themselves anyway.
    They will grow up to be activists, and of little use to other users in the community. :^)

  21. A good test of this would be to look at the users of non-default browsers (that is not safari on macs or explorer on PC's). And see what search engine they use.

    If someone is able and willing to change their default browser, they are just as skilled to change their default search engine, if they want to.

    I suspect that you'd find that such people tend to stick with google because it does the job of search well, and nobody provides a great alternative worth switching to.

  22. I just had to go through a hour of trying to get rid of Bing that got installed as part of a windows internet explorer update.

    A pain in the A**

    I would love to see a way us FireFox/google users could LOCK in what we want so that these other search engine could NOT change our preference without our permission.

    I totally HATE any site that makes any changes to my computer without my permission by tricks or stealth.

    I also KNOW Bing will be back and install again with out my permission


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