What it is: Many companies think they need to compete against rivals by copying what their rivals are doing. That’s a strategy for failure. To become a leader, you must think of what others aren’t doing and that’s where the opportunities are.
Google was actually late to the search engine market. At one time, Yahoo! ruled the search engine world with rivals like Excite, Lycos, and AltaVista following close behind. These early search engines made their money though advertising that they plastered across their home sites. If you look at the top image, you can see what Yahoo looked like in 1998, which looks similar towhat rival search engines looked like back in that same year.
Early search engines made their money by bombarding users with links and ads in an effort to keep them on the search engine website. Back then, search engines actually didn’t want to provide the best search results because then users would leave too quickly. So the business model of early search engines was based on medic re search results (which forced users to spend more time on the search engine site, looking for the results they wanted) and ads and links that encouraged users to stay on the search engine site.
Logically if you were a search engine back in 1998, you’d want to create a similar search engine that copied the appearance and business model of existing search engines. Yet Google did something different. They focused on a minimalist website with no ads that emphasized the best results possible in the shortest amount of time. Here’s what Google’s site looked like back in 2000.
Instead of copying existing search engines with cluttered websites designed to keep users on the site as long as possible, Google tried to get users off their site as fast as possible. The goal was to provide a great user experience so people would keep coming back. Then Google could analyze their search results to eventually target them with relevant ads.
In other words, Google did not copy rivals, but focused first on the user. Then they found a way to monetize their superior search results through ads presented on other websites. By thinking differently, Google killed their rivals and carved out a lead for themselves that even Microsoft’s billions haven’t been able to dent much with their Bing competitor. Bing will likely never challenge Google because Bing simply copies Google in much the same way that AltaVista and Excite copied Yahoo! When given a choice between a copycat that looks and behaves like the original, or using the original, most people simply stay with the original because they have no incentive to switch.
Given the similarities between Bing and Google, why switch for possibly marginally better search results? By copying others all the time, Microsoft dooms themselves to second class status. By doing what others don’t do, companies like Google kill their rivals and redefine the market for themselves. Which strategy sounds like a better way to dominate a market?