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Google TV Campaign has a Key Flaw

It’s hard to distinguish Chrome when most people don’t know what a browser is.

Google made headlines this week by beginning a television ad campaign pushing its Chrome browser. But I don’t think the ads are going to help the company with its intended goal. For example, here’s one, known as “Dear Sophie.” It features a father sharing memories with his daughter through a special e-mail account, and ends with the tagline, “the web is what you make of it.”

The thing is, as Google well knows, most people don’t know what a browser is. In 2009, Google made a video illustrating just that. According to the video, less than 8 percent of the people who were interviewed on that day knew what a browser was—most confused it with a search engine.

Google’s ad campaigns are adorable and emotional, but they’re not always clear. The Dear Sophie ad strikes me as an ad for e-mail, because that’s the main product being used in the ad. If users see the ad and visit the URL it gives at the end, I think they’ll be confused to wind up on a landing page for something other than Gmail.

The problem is that the browser is the gateway to the Internet. It’s easy for people to know what they do online—send e-mail, search, whatever. It’s hard for them to pay attention to how they got there.

Even if people figure out what a browser is, it’s hard to get them to care enough about it to be willing to change. The New York Times quotes Harvard professor David B. Yoffie:

“Microsoft does adequately well for the vast majority of consumers,” said David B. Yoffie, a professor at Harvard Business School who has written books about competition among Internet businesses.

“The problem for both Firefox and Chrome is how are they going to convince customers that they have a significantly better product, worth the hassle of actually going and downloading something that’s new and different.”

So why does Google care about this so much? The company talked a lot about using Chrome to push other browser makers into better products, but now it’s working hard to sell people on its specific browser. Thomas Claburn of Information Week, writes:

Chrome users are great for Google because, as Google SVP of commerce and local Jeff Huber put it in the company’s Q1 2011 earnings conference call in April, “Chrome users are very valuable to Google.” Huber said Google is investing in Chrome marketing and the payoff is worth it. “We have over 120 million daily users [of Chrome], over 40% of whom we added in the past year as a result of our marketing efforts,” he said. …

Chrome does not imprison users–one can use competing browsers while Chrome is installed–but it does open a window onto the Web that’s free of competitive distractions. And it creates a barrier to exit, in that habits keep users coming back to the same software rather than making the effort to change.

Despite Google’s uphill battle, it is gaining ground. Ars Technica’s Peter Bright calls Chrome “the only browser to show consistent any growth these days.” He writes:

Both Microsoft and Mozilla will be disappointed to learn that so far, nothing much has changed. Internet Explorer is down yet again, dropping 0.81 points to 55.11 percent. Firefox experienced a small drop of 0.17 points, to 21.63 percent. Chrome was up 0.37 points to 11.94 percent, and Safari was up 0.54 points to 7.15 percent. The implication from this is that the new browsers, though both substantial upgrades over their predecessors, are doing little to attract users of other browsers; the people switching to them are merely upgraders.

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