Interbrand.com compiles an annual top 100 “Best Global Brands” and it always makes for fascinating reading, especially so this year now I have started studying Information Science at university. The site’s editors use various criteria to judge how these brands are performing such as the publicly available information on their financial performance, their prospects for growth and their visibility across major markets. Many familiar names are represented near the top of the rankings such as carmakers Toyota, Mercedes-Benz and BMW and technology giants Apple, IBM and Samsung. E-commerce titans Amazon are 2016’s fastest-rising entry. No matter where in the world you live, it is likely that these companies’ products and/or services are readily available and heavily advertised across various channels. All this is very interesting but what I really want to focus on here is two particularly big yet very different corporations, namely Coca-Cola and Google.
Last year I read Mark Prendergast’s hugely enjoyable history of the Coca-Cola Company “For God, Country & Coca-Cola”. As one of their most loyal customers, I was both informed and entertained by the story of how Atlanta chemist John Pemberton’s eccentric health tonic (originally containing actual cocaine though the Company has subsequently denied this) was transformed into the market-leading soft drink by Asa Candler and became one of the pioneers of today’s global economy with Coke becoming available virtually anywhere in the world.
This remains true today even as the Coca-Cola Company has diversified into other areas as anywhere you go the original brown fizzy drink is still ubiquitous. The very name “Coca-Cola” has become synonymous with its most notable product almost everywhere, much to rival Pepsi’s chagrin. The annual Christmas adverts featuring Santa’s sleigh delivering the famous beverage are even believed to have “standardised” the appearance of Claus’ outfit in people’s minds to the Company’s red and white colours! In 2016’s Interbrand rankings, Coca-Cola is third, behind a much newer company that has much more relevance to librarians and information professionals.
Everyone seems to use Google as their search engine when they search the web, to search an extent that its very name has become a generic term. I was actually surprised to learn that Google’s global market-share was actually only 64% in 2015 as nobody ever mentions “Binging” something. This suggests that they have not actually succeeded in creating an internet search monopoly, even though public perception may suggest otherwise.
Despite the recent launch of the Pixel smartphone and increasingly unavoidable advertising of their Chrome browser, Google has an incredibly different business model not only from Coca-Cola but also from the vast majority of other brands on the Interbrand list. Very few of Google’s customers have actually paid any money to use their services let alone made a conscious decision to choose them over a competitor. Anyone who buys a Mac will have chosen that in preference to a PC and anyone who drives a Ford will have preferred it to say a Toyota. Yet people seem to opt for using Google without considering any alternatives. This creates a potential problem for information specialists (and indeed for anyone with a stake in markets operating fairly).
In last week’s class with David Bawden, we had a first look at how relational database management systems work and did a practical exercise that involved groups of us searching for journal references on MedlinePlus and Web of Science. While these platforms have sophisticated interfaces with advanced search and command line functions, David suggested that most users in his experience prefer a much simpler “search box” system. This does have the advantage of convenience and familiarity. These are obviously two of Google’s main selling points as a search engine. Our role, however, is to help pinpoint the most relevant and useful data we can for our users and so we need to think critically about how we go about doing so, even in a world where Google and its approach are dominant. If one company can have too much influence on the way people search for information, we should all be worried.