Is Google’s Interface a Barrier to Entry?

With Google’s IPO almost certainly coming in the first half of this year, the pundits are at the post. Financial sorts can’t help playing Ladbroke’s on possible offering prices, while technologists pick holes in Google’s core technology.

I’ve staked out my punditry position on the Google IPO pricing issue already, so let me talk technology for a moment. Critics take one of two tacks (or a combination thereof):

  1. Google’s search engine has been badly gamed by Google-whackers and spammers. Google simply isn’t as effective as it once was.
  2. Competitors, like Microsoft and Yahoo, are targeting search, and the history of search is that it isn’t “sticky”.

Both points are fair. On the second point, yes, search is not sticky, if by that critics mean there are few obvious barriers — like eBay’s traffic, or Amazon’s reviews — to users changing favored search sites. Consider my own case: I started off using Yahoo years ago, then went to Altavista, was briefly at Hotbot, and then moved to Google, where I’ve been for some time.

But there are other kinds of stickiness. In addition to file formats, the main reason I don’t switch from Microsoft Office to other office suites is mundane: the interface. Not that Microsoft has it right, it doesn’t, but I don’t want to learn how to use another word processor that works differently from Microsoft Word. Life is too short.

Google’s case is somewhat similar. Have recently tried the new Microsoft search beta I got that feeling of revulsion I get when contemplating learning a new piece of software. I ran back to Google. What people are forgetting, in other words, is that search engines are increasingly packaged software applications, and as such there is an unremarked barrier to entry: the interface design.

Is an idiosyncratic and reasonably intelligent interface enough to warrant a $15-billion market capitalization for Google? Certainly not, but there is also more to site stickiness than traffic.

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