Engine Failure: Why Google's Homepage Experiment Sputtered

Google's (GOOG) effort to display background artwork on its normally minimalist homepage may have initially started out as a great idea -- after all, its increasingly competitive rival, Microsoft's Bing, does it.

But Google yanked down the artwork less than 24 hours into the experiment, following a surge of complaints flooded its help forums asking for help removing the background.

Two lessons here: Google users like the site as is; Bingers may be a different breed. Additionally, if the search giant follows Bing's lead, it may alienate its customer base. Representatives from Google and Bing were not immediately available.

The two companies occupy the same space, but that's about where the similarities end. For one things, consider the way Google reaches users. Google achieved its dominant search market position largely in the most viral way possible: word of mouth. Microsoft (MSFT), meanwhile, is reportedly spending $80 million to $100 million on an advertising campaign.

"If you're advertising on television, you're talking to people who aren't on the Web at that moment and have to learn about Bing on TV," says Andy Rutledge, a Web designer. "The Google customer lives on the Web and so the company has had to do very little marketing."

An Internal Test is Revealing

By now Google should be well aware of what its customers like and how its homepage resonates with its users. According to AdvertisingAge, the company conducted internal tests in which it placed its logo and look on the results of another search engine. Though the results were not from Google, users were quite pleased with the experience.

"At first glance it might seem that Google's homepage customization experiment is an attempt to look like Bing's 'pretty' homepage, but in reality they're trying to personalize the user's experience," says Melissa Gonzalez, search engine marketing director for Optimum7. "Those who are more frequent navigators of the internet use Google as their main search engine for great search results, generated by a sophisticated and faster indexing algorithm. I would assume regular users of Google are not interested in aesthetics but rather a less cluttered homepage and relevancy in results."

She added that if Google wants to lure Bing users without alienating its current customers, she believes the best way would be to incorporate popular web browsers, similar to what it's done with Firefox, which features Google as the default homepage.

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