What Google Does (and needs to keep doing)

by Doc Searls

Jeff Jarvis is working on a book called What Would Google Do? Since Google just did something good for me — and for a market that needs help desperately — I thought I'd share my experience with Jeff and the rest of you.

What Google Did for me was radically improve one of the most annoying experiences in the Webbed world: registering a domain name.

Like a lot of readers here, I'm not your ordinary domain name customer. I've been registering names since 10 July 1995, whois tells me. That's when I picked up Searls.com from InterNIC. Even back then I realized (as did approximately all Web-native geeks) that the market for domain names was broken at the outset, because it caused an artificial scarcity in the midst of real abundance, and a monopoly for those privileged to work within that system.

I thought for about a nanosecond about going into that business. That's how long it takes to realize domain squatting is a scammy trade from the outset. What geek who values abundance wants to get into a game that's all about gaming a Wrong System? (Well, I know a few, but their calling has been un-game a bad system from the inside.)

So, like most folks who are not in the business, I've bought a number of domain names over the years, from Network Solutions, Register.com, GoDaddy, DomainDirect and ... I'm not sure who else. (I've also convinced Linux Journal to buy a few domain names too, some of which we've kept and some of which we've let go.)

Without exception, my experience with domain name registrars has been an upstream slog against a torrent of promotional distractions. Nobody hates white space more than a domain name registrar. (Though many run a close tie, including most advertising-supported media.)

So about half an hour ago I got a call from a guy at Network Solutions. He noted that I own giantzero.us, and told me that giantzero.com had become available. (The Giant Zero is the name of a book I'm working on, but that I'm not ready to start writing about on a website.) I asked him what it cost, and he told me $30/year or something like that — but with a price that got a lot cheaper if I bought it for five or ten years. I forget his numbers, because it didn't matter. What mattered was that I knew I could get it for less elsewhere, even without checking. But I wanted to give this guy a chance to keep and grow my business, since he had bothered to call and offer me valuable information as well as a useful service.

So I asked for his help with something else that required interaction with Network Solutions: changing an old credit card number to a new one. He told me to call back. Why wouldn't he transfer the call? It doesn't matter, because the friction was too high and the switching costs were too low. Network Solutions had its chance, and lost it.

When I got off the phone I did the easy first thing: checking withGoDaddy. Sure enough, GoDaddy offered the domain for less than $10/year. I forget the price. It only mattered that GoDaddy's deal was way better than Network Solutions'. But still, GoDaddy's search results page was thick with confusing upsells for other domain suffixes and a pile of services I didn't want.

So I typed domain name registration in the location bar of Firefox, hit return and found myself at Network Solutions. Not wanting that, I took the longcut and looked up domain name registration on Google. There I found that Google was now in the business too, offering domain name registration via Google apps. (Well, not quite. It's not clear from the Google Apps' landing page that Google is in the domain registration business. Instead you have to go here.)

So I checked on giantzero.us and found that Google offered it for $10. That's all I needed to know. From that point forward Google made the registration process simple and easy — at least compared to the other registrars. It took me seconds to do the job, and I didn't have to deal with a bunch of upselling promos and other distractions. Along the way I also got into my Google Checkout account and added my new credit card number. (Though I couldn't figure out how to kill the old one: a minor bug.)

Did I use Google just because it's a "trusted brand"? No. In fact, there are no "brands" that I trust. Sorry, marketers, "branding" is a term borrowed from the cattle industry, and I'm done being impressed that way. (And trust me, it's a taint that the trade isn't going to shake.)

I used Google because I trust them not to treat me like cattle — or worse, as a potential sucker.

This is not to say that Google's domain registration process is perfect, or that Google is being not-evil or anything fancy like that. My point is that Google offers a straightforward and uncomplicated service in the midst of a business that has needed one for the duration.

In The Big Switch, Nick Carr does a great job describing how utility computing is becoming part of business infrastructure. Google, of course, is a leader in that market development. But what Google's doing here is something else:. They're looking for large online markets where there is demand for simple and useful services, and every competitor is stuck in the 20th Century model of trapping customers and treating them like slaves. And then they execute well.

That includes Google-grade uncomplications, such as minimized text, absent graphics, and sweet peaceful spreads of white space.

It's also important to note that Google isn't giving domain names away for free. One reason is that their partner, enom.com, isn't in the free domain name business. Another is that domain names have a value north of $0. Most people are willing to trade money for value.

Note also that I didn't shop for domain names entirely on price — even though friction, switching costs and other transaction-based economics were involved. I bought this domain name from Google because I have a mutually respectful relationship with them. That relationship does not require human involvement, but it does require human values. Especially respect.

Relationships are the real frontier here, and Google is no less an explorer than anybody else. That means they too have a lot to discover. And to remember.

Back in 1969, when I was fresh out of college and living in a third-floor walk-up on North Main Street in Hackensack, I got to be friends with an older couple who lived across the hall. Their names were Hans and Illie Schmidt, and they had emigrated from Austria in the late 1930s, when it was clear that their country would fall to Hitler and the Nazis. Hans was an artist who made his living designing wallpaper (of the literal sort), but he was a brilliant guy whose knowledge and interests spanned many topics. We would talk for hours about music, chess, history and much more.

After about a year in that apartment I got a job working at a newspaper elsewhere in New Jersey, and moved away. Then one day I ran in to Hans in the parking lot of a supermarket. After exchanging pleasantries, I said something about getting together again. Hans called me on my BS. After noting that I didn't trouble to call him after we left our old apartment, he said something that burned my brain more deeply than any company's branding. He said, "Friends are so hard to make, and so easy to lose". With that, he got in his car and left. I never saw him again.

My father was with me and saw how the encounter shook me. At first I was critical of Hans. Why hadn't he called me? Why was this my fault? "It doesn't matter", Pop said. "He's right. Remember that."

Google should too. The bigger you get, the more you forget.

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