Can you trust Google in 2021?
With a stream of publications, trend studies and online tools, Google is a goldmine for anyone in touch with digital marketing, behavioural design and strategy. Most recently, they published the report Decoding Decisions – Making sense of the messy middle.
With the 1,000-participant study, Google explores consumer behaviour and consumer decision-making processes. They examine the biases and triggers to which humans are subject when trawling the internet. These have an impact on how the decisions mature and which purchases are made.
We have thoroughly chewed through the 98 pages of the report. Some passages are ingenious, with lots of learning and nuggets of gold. But it is also unreliable and full of blanks.
First, let me explain what the study is about and what the core of the problem is. Then we’ll look at why this can be a serious problem for many brands.
If you already know about the study or just want to read why Google potentially gambles with brands, you can skip the next chapter.
Google initially confirms that decision-making processes are as complex as ever. Therefore, it is critical to study our behaviour and examine what determines our actions when evaluating products and brands.
The moment is related to the customer's encounter with the product, for example on a website. However, the study also embraces a bigger piece of the user journey, namely the time and the online space in which we make the decisions. With that said, this is not a study that embraces the 1:1 user journey across online and offline.
The space is aptly called the messy middle, which illustrates that it is a far from linear user journey. Based on the study, Google concludes that six cognitive biases affect our decision-making process and buying habits:
- Category heuristics
- Authority bias
- Social proof
- Power of now
- Scarcity bias
- Power of free
Scarcity is mentioned as one of the six biases. An example of this is when we plan to go on holiday and see that there are only two vacant leases available in autumn half term. As a result of this scarcity, you must act fast and rent the property before it’s gone.
According to Google, we have more than 100 such biases, but these six are especially crucial for us to move preferences across products and brands.
The study is also intended as an aid to marketers who may be good at SEO, but who are not able to turn users into paying customers. It may be that they can’t influence the users at critical moments during the visit to the website, for example.
At the same time, Google states that users completely master the messy middle. Biases are the user's instinctive and cognitive helpers in this chaos. The point is that it is not a consumer issue, but a pain for the business. Namely, it is the companies that are seriously challenged if they fail to trigger these biases.
Everything seems to be well-meaning. Google's study is, as suggested, massive, especially with the involvement of several external experts. So everything should be good and, not least, scientific.
In fact, it is so scientific that variants of the term are used more than 30 times in the report.
They use the so-called scientific approach to investigate what our bias is – but it is not a scientific study.
Let's look at the survey:
- Google asked participants not to consider price as a parameter in the decision-making process. In short, the price aspect becomes irrelevant to our shift in, for example, product preference. In part, this is understandable, as price is a troublesome power factor in our behaviour.
But Google does not factor in what happens when price is taken out of the equation. No matter how much price risks influencing the decision, it is a dependent variable. When mathematicians need to isolate a dependent variable, they still take it into consideration, because otherwise the result will not reflect reality.
In this context, it can be estimated that everyone is implicitly inclined to change brand preference to a product that complies with the six biases – as long as we do not have to pay. Everything else will be irrational.
- Google asks (simultaneous) participants not to overthink and to decide as they would in real life. But the participants are in a laboratory experiment and selected according to strict criteria. For example, there are requirements that everyone must have shopped on Amazon and be available for purchases in the product category within a short time.
That set-up is equivalent to asking participants of Dragon’s Den not to be nervous. It’s not going to happen.
The last piece of information makes Google – unsurprisingly – conclude that the power of now is important. Well, a focus on the here-and-now tends to make the power-of-now relevant.
Setting up unbiased experiments is never easy. But when dealing scientifically with just bias, one should try. The study’s methodology is challenging and not transparent. Nor are we told why Google has chosen these six biases out of the more than 100 they identified.
It is worth mentioning that one of the six biases is social proof, something that Google’s own business model holds in high regard. Social proof is described as the recommendations and reviews from others that have a positive effect. It may well be a valid bias, but it is also relevant to point out that Google works with this same bias, for example user ratings linked to search results. When Google is the researcher itself and they can benefit from attaching great importance to certain biases, they should be more critical of them.
I will come back to the disadvantage of that position and dominance. Of course a little conspiratorial, yes. Conversely, it's actually fair enough that Google caters to their own business. Most people try this with hungry shareholders behind them, so perhaps the problem is rather their market dominance and lack of critical sense.
But it is still almost paradoxical to examine the bias of consumers and so relentlessly overlook their own bias.
Did I mention the premise that Google is putting up?
Overall, I do not agree with their premise at all; that users master the messy middle. It is not solely Google's fault that the middle is messy – there is a lot of content on the internet – but commercialisation has made it very difficult to navigate.
Among other things, it is ads that take up space. And when consumers finally find organic results, it's still results from companies that live up to Google's reward mechanisms and satisfy the algorithm. Without going into too much detail, check out a few headlines.
The results (or risks) of following Google's advice
We talked about bias already, but let's go less into conspiracies. The most interesting thing here is what potentially happens if we all follow Google's marketing advice. After all, it's mostly about tuning the company's engine to the reality and the services that Google represents.
Here we must remember that Google has indeed worked hard to obtain and provide democratic access to information. But that journey has also meant that it would be best if everyone followed the same rules so they’re all indexed in the same structured way.
But the same game board and the same focus is not necessarily the best for everyone.
There is a risk of brand uniformity. It's the same as back then when everyone thought they were going to compete on price. If companies and brands compete on the same cognitive bias, they will theoretically be more vulnerable to price (keep in mind that price was not included in Google's study!).
A question here is also what role the browser or search engine has in the future. Is it really still our primary tool for finding results? And what does this mean for the search pattern when we drop the semantic web and, across the kitchen table, order our groceries with voice-controlled technology? Where does the washed-out brand live in that user journey?
In relation to this discussion, I would recommend Chuck Klosterman’s But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past. Without repeating it verbatim, Chuck says we should listen to Google, but also not be led to believe that they are unbiased by their own business model or that they know all the answers.
A peer-review of Google?
One can hardly call this blog post a peer review, but the post is written because there was surprisingly little criticism of Google's report. Researchers, of course, conduct lots of scientific peer reviews, but rarely of the (so-called) scientific reports from purely commercial players. And the rest of us, including Novicell, are often partners with Google. Also note, thoughtfully perhaps, how difficult it is to find criticism of Google via Google compared to a search via Bing and DuckDuckGo.