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Google steps up marketing, but keeps the soft-sell January 5, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Google, Marketing.
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As Google evolves from a search engine into a full-fledged portal, the Web giant is stepping up its promotion of its growing array of content and services. But don’t expect banner ads or TV spots, Google says it plans to stay with the famously uncluttered style of its home page.

Google Steps Up Self Promotion > Google Inc. may finally have learned how to promote itself without compromising its principles. Like its own legions of advertisers, it is marketing its products on Google.com.

The Mountain View, Calif., company shook up the advertising world, and made a very good living, by selling subtle text advertisements designed to give advertisers leads without irritating consumers. In a similar vein, it has shunned flashy marketing for its own products and services. Unlike rivals such as Yahoo Inc. and IAC/InteractiveCorp.’s Ask.com unit, Google doesn’t use banner ads or buy expensive television spots that might boost brand awareness and site traffic. And it maintains a famously austere homepage, displaying a simple set of links to search services, including those for the Web, images, video, news and maps. There are a few others available, if you click on “more.”

The minimalist marketing strategy has provoked periodic whistles of disapproval from investors and industry watchers concerned that many of Google’s newer products, Finance, Real Estate, Answers, have been floundering because people don’t know about them. They worry that feeble self-promotion could keep Google from maintaining its torrid growth rate and make its big investments in cool new products a waste of time and money.

Yet, slowly but surely, Google has been finding its own true-to-character techniques for pitching its expanding array of wares. Recently, it appears to be using its own immensely popular search site to invite users to try another product, typically in a way that is couched more as a helpful hint than a salesman’s pitch.

“They’re starting to promote all these other products” that were created or acquired during the last couple of years, says LeeAnn Prescott, an analyst at Hitwise.

The slow change underscores the tension between Google’s simpler past as a search engine, epitomized by the clean homepage that won over millions of users, and its more complicated, portal-like future. The crisp look can’t be shed without peril, but a menu of services requires a little clutter. “Nobody’s going to find these new tools unless they do something to promote them,” Ms. Prescott says.

Recently, the company has run sizable promotions for its browser-toolbar download in a box at the top right corner of its homepage. It has also recently encouraged homepage visitors to download the latest version of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox Web browser, a growing rival to Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer browser that uses Google as its default search engine.

Google has long promoted the toolbar, and other products, on its homepage. But the recent plugs have been closer in style to banner ads, being at the top and employing graphics, than the low-key one-liners under the search box that Google has used before. Heralding the new year, for instance, Google last Friday was running a plug that said, “Get disorganized in 2007. Use Google Desktop to find your files.”

Both the toolbar and the relationship with Firefox aid Google’s search-query market share because they make using Google more convenient, no visit to Google.com is necessary, and can cement user loyalty. More pitches of this sort can be expected, but Google may be unwilling to use the power of its sleek homepage much more aggressively.

“We are committed to the clean, uncluttered user interface of the Google homepage. From time to time we promote products on the Google homepage in order to help people continue to find and access information that’s important to them,” a Google spokeswoman said. She declined to say how effective these product plugs are, but said Google constantly makes “adjustments” to Google.com pages to help users find information and to test new designs and user interfaces.

But it appears that even small changes can have a big impact. According to research from Hitwise, traffic to Google’s Blog Search service more than doubled over a two-week period in October after Google put a simple link to the service on its Google News homepage. About 60% of its blog search traffic has come directly from Google News since then, compared with 1% before the change, Hitwise says.

“What they’re doing is very subtle,” Ms. Prescott says. And it’s “effective, clearly, but it’s almost like they do it kind of late,” pointing out that Google Blog Search was sitting around for a long time before the company began to push it.

Hitwise has tracked how Google’s past in-house promotions have led to surges in use of its services. It noted a jump last winter for Book Search, to the fifth-most-used Google service from the ninth, after Google ran a simple message at the bottom of some search-results pages reading: “Try your search again on Google Book Search.” Google has been more liberal lately in its use of the search-results pages as a marketing tool, and in a number of different ways. Indeed, Google’s own search-results pages could be the company’s best marketing tool.

“The most effective way to promote a product is just showing it to [users] when it’s relevant to what they’re looking for,” said Google Vice President Marissa Mayer in April.

“In terms of driving traffic … that technique actually yields the most users,” compared with links on the homepage or other types of marketing, she said, adding that it is “the best way for us to build up a meaningful awareness of the product.”

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