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In last week’s Search Insider, I introduced the idea of habits, and why they can be hard things to break. This week, I want to explore how search engines can be habit-forming as well.

Cognitive Lock-In

Habits form and stay formed because there is usually a cost associated with discontinuing the habit. In a commercial interaction, this is referred to as the "cost of switching." These are the lock-in mechanisms that companies hope will keep you from walking across the street to their competitors. In theory, the cost of switching on the Internet should be negligible, creating a frictionless, "perfect" market. There’s no financial penalty. The Internet erases geographic boundaries. And this should be especially true in search. After all, other search engines are only a click away. But researchers (Johnson, Bellman and Lohse, 2003; Brynjolfsson and Smith, 2000) actually found the opposite to be true. It seemed that customer stickiness can actually be greater online. So, if it’s so easy to switch, why aren’t more people doing it?

It appears, based on research (Zauberman, 2003), that there’s another cost of switching, the cost of learning new interfaces. This has been called "cognitive lock-in.". As you become comfortable navigating through a site, the cognitive cost of learning new interfaces tends to build your loyalty and keep you "locked in" to the site. This happens in the real world as well, and could explain my wife’s seemingly irrational loyalty to the bad grocery store I described last week. She knows where everything is. She knows where to park. And she knows who to argue with when products don’t meet her standards (as well as how to get her point across — it’s an Italian thing). It may not be great, but it’s familiar!

Will Differentiation Increase the Power of Lock-In?

A recent study (Murray and Haubl, 2007) found that cognitive lock-in comes from habits of use as well as habitual choice. Both are relevant in the search space, but let’s put habitual choice aside for a moment. Habits of use form when we become familiar with using a product, the actual mechanics of how it fits us in realizing our goals. We know how to use Google, for example, and how to refine it to get the results we’re looking for. We know which links take us where, which tabs to hit and even through we never use it, the "Feeling Lucky?" button reminds us we’re on Google. When Google tried to remove it, based on lack of usage, there was a huge user backlash.

This sense of familiarity meant that until recently, all search engines looked the same. The same ten blue links, the same treatment of sponsored ads, the same basic layout. But in a recent set of interviews with all the major engines’ design and usability teams, it was made clear that we can expect more differentiation among the engines. Ask’s departure was just the first step in this movement.

It’s Not Just a Tool, It’s a Badge

But it’s not just the utility of an engine that increases lock-in. There’s also habitual choice. This comes from our lock-in to a brand. We always drink Coke, we always drive a Honda, we always fly Southwest, we always search on Google. Yes, even something as utilitarian as a search engine engenders brand allegiance. We identify with brands because they help define us as individuals. And this has happened to varying extents in the search space.

There Will Never Be Another Google in Search

You might ask, if Google became a habit, what’s to stop another engine from also becoming a habit? Well, first of all, it won’t be nearly as easy for a new player as it was for Google. Think back to when you first used Google. No one engine had established itself as the user’s choice, creating the "lock-in" effect. I used to hop back and forth between four or five engines, depending on my objective and the closest engine at hand. I’d perhaps start at Infoseek or AltaVista, and if I didn’t get a great result (which was pretty much always true) I’d try Excite or HotBot. Then, finally, in desperation, I’d sort through the hierarchal jungle that was Yahoo. No engine had become a habit.

Google’s genius was in providing pretty good results for a wide variety of searchers. Suddenly, I didn’t have to hop from engine to engine, because nine out of 10 times Google provided better results. By the time the rest of the engines had closed the gap, I was already locked in. Now, arguably, other engines provide better results for certain types of searches. But Google is habitual. It’s going to be an uphill battle for the competition. In fact, Google is such a habit; its name has even replaced the word "search." We now "Google" it.

So, where does that leave the competition? I have some ideas, but they’ll have to wait till next week.

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