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November 02, 2006

Thou Shalt Not Google Unless on Google

posted by MR WAVETHEORY at 11/02/2006 10:34:00 AM
Google Inc. (Nasdaq GOOG) Blog has an interesting post on how they're trying to avoid the fate of Xerox and Kleenex. They don't want you to use Google as a verb, because when you do, it no longer is a trademark. I think Google has officially become too corporate. How many companies hire grammar patrols? What's next? Search nannies?

Q: What do zippers, baby oil, brassieres and trampolines have in common?

A: No, the answer isn't that they're all part of the setup for a highly inappropriate joke. In fact, the above list (along with thermos, cellophane, escalator, elevator, dry ice and many more) are all words that fell victim to those products' very success and, as they became more and more popular, slipped from trademarked status into common usage.

Will "Google" manage to avoid this fate? This year has brought a spate of news stories about the word's addition to the Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English dictionaries, an honor that's simultaneously highly flattering and faintly unsettling. Consider, for example, this passage from a New York Times story published last May:

"Jim sent a message introducing himself and asking, 'Do you want to make a movie?'" Mr. Fry recalled in a telephone interview from his home in Buda, Tex. 'So we Googled him, he passed the test, and T called him. That was in March 1996; we spent the summer coming up with the story, and we pitched it that fall.'"
Now, since Larry and Sergey didn't actually launch Google until 1998, Mr. Fry's usage of 'Google' is as distressing to our trademark lawyers as it is thrilling to our marketing folks. So, lest our name go the way of the elevators and escalators of yesteryear, we thought it was time we offered this quick semantic primer.

A trademark is a word, name, symbol or device that identifies a particular company's products or services. Google is a trademark identifying Google Inc. and our search technology and services. While we're pleased that so many people think of us when they think of searching the web, let's face it, we do have a brand to protect, so we'd like to make clear that you should please only use "Google" when you’re actually referring to Google Inc. and our services.

Here are some hopefully helpful examples.

Usage: 'Google' as noun referring to, well, us.
Example: "I just love Google, they're soooo cute and cuddly and adorable and awesome!"
Our lawyers say: Good. Very, very good. There's no question here that you're referring to Google Inc. as a company. Use it widely, and hey, tell a friend.

Usage: 'Google' as verb referring to searching for information on, um, Google.
Example: "I googled him on the well-known website Google.com and he seems pretty interesting."
Our lawyers say: Well, we're happy at least that it's clear you mean searching on Google.com. As our friends at Merriam-Webster note, to "Google" means "to use the Google search engine to find information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web."

Usage: 'Google' as verb referring to searching for information via any conduit other than Google.
Example: "I googled him on Yahoo and he seems pretty interesting."
Our lawyers say: Bad. Very, very bad. You can only "Google" on the Google search engine. If you absolutely must use one of our competitors, please feel free to "search" on Yahoo or any other search engine.
Thanks for your attention, and we look forward to serving your search-related information needs again soon.

Search Insider also has an interesting take on this little dilemma.

GOO-GLE
: FUNCTION: TRANSITIVE VERB: TO
use the Google search engine to obtain information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web-Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Of all the things that Google's lawyers have in their basket, apparently stamping out inappropriate use of "Google" as a verb is right on top of the stack. It apparently irks them no end.

Now, I can really sympathize here. It's a little known fact that my last name has actually suffered the same fate as Google. In Japan, of all places, Hotchkiss has become the generic name for the office stapler. Each time a worker lost in the maze of cubicles at Mitsui and Co. says, "Pass me the Hotchkiss" I die a little inside. I kid you not! Check out Wikipedia.

Mind your Ps and Googles

Now, according to a post on Google's official blog, it's not the fact that we Google on Google that causes the Google legal department to have hissy fits. It's if we try Googling on Yahoo and MSN. It can't be done. Not all tissue papers are Kleenex, not all copy machines are Xeroxes. To quote the post:

You can only "Google" on the Google search engine. If you absolutely must use one of our competitors, please feel free to "search" on Yahoo or any other search engine.

Hmmm..people are using the word "Google" to refer to Google's competitors, and it's Google that's upset? Unless I'm missing something here, shouldn't it be Yahoo and MSN that should be miffed?

I Google, therefore I am...

The inclusion of Google in the English lexicon is "faintly unsettling," according to the folks at Google. They fear that Google will lose its identity as a trademark once it slips into common usage. They explain:

A trademark is a word, name, symbol or device that identifies a particular company's products or services. Google is a trademark identifying Google Inc. and our search technology and services. While we're pleased that so many people think of us when they think of searching the web, let's face it, we do have a brand to protect, so we'd like to make clear that you should please only use "Google" when you're actually referring to Google Inc. and our services.

Now, I know that Google has way too much money, and they have a team of very bright 12-year-old lawyers (or at least, they look 12) trying to reinvent the law. But in this case, I would suggest slipping down to the Google cafeteria for a double decaf low fat cappuccino and relaxing. There are better windmills to tilt at than this one.

Once again, who's in control?

The irony here is that the very entity that has probably done more than any other to put control in the hands of the consumer is now fretting because consumers are exercising that control. We associate search with Google. We endorse the brand by using it as a verb. It's just this critical mass that makes Google such a formidable competitor in the highly promising search market. Frankly, it's not the fact that their brands became generic terms that hurt many of the companies that Google uses as examples. It's because the companies became complacent and let the competition catch up, losing the distinction that their brand once afforded them. The consumers didn't take the brand away from the company, the company surrendered the brand to the competition.

In the corporate culture that says "don't be evil," apparently improper use of "Googling" is now defined as evil. Just to make it clear, Merriam-Webster defines evil as "morally reprehensible.". Perhaps someday "google" will also mean "to spend one's time unproductively fighting frivolous legal battles." At this point, it's a toss-up with "disney."

A final word to Google's legal team: As you're putting together those multi-page lawsuits, go ahead and feel free to use the Hotchkiss. I don't mind.

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