In graduate school, I did a research project in industrial linguistics. My project was to tackle the word-sense disambiguation problem. Basically, words are uttered descriptors, each of which has a context — a sense. For example, the word “bank” can be taken as a financial institution, whereas “bank” can also be understood as a the side of a river. The concepts of context, nearest-neighbors, and bayesian statistics come into play when discussing problem in the realm of computational linguistics. It is truly fascinating stuff.
Well, it looks like word-sense disambiguation has reared its head once again, with a hint of trademark violation and brand management. Google recently urged its audience to excercise care when using the word “google” or “googled.” In their words:
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.
Marketers are excited about making a brand a household name. That is good news. But, company attorneys, such as the Google lawyers, aren’t excited about this. Here’s their tongue-in-cheek invitation:
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.
To their credit, it’s their brand, their logo, their trademark — it’s their right and responsibility to protect it. I don’t have a problem with that. What I find interesting is this: there is a tremendous amount of backlash already towards Google, and bashing Google kinda cool now — google bashing is almost the new black, as it were.
Moreover, this isn’t new. Google has done this before:
Date: Mon, 24 Feb 2003 22:28:22 -0500
Reply-To: American Dialect Society < [log in to unmask]>
Sender: American Dialect Society Mailing List < [log in to unmask]>
From: Paul McFedries < [log in to unmask]>
Subject: Google trademark concerns
Comments: To: [log in to unmask]
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=”iso-8859-1″
My Word Spy site includes an entry for “google” as a verb: http://www.wordspy.com/words/google.asp Earlier this evening I received the following note from a Google lawyer:
Dear Mr. McFedries:
I am trademark counsel for Google. I have recently become aware of a definition of “google” on your website, www.wordspy.com. This definition implies that “google” is a verb synonymous with “search.” Please note that Google is a trademark of Google Technology Inc. Our brand is very important to us, and as I’m sure you’ll understand, we want to make sure that when people use “Google,” they are referring to the services our company provides and not to Internet searching in general. I attach a copy of a short, informative piece regarding the proper use of “Google” for your reference.
We ask that you help us to protect our brand by deleting the definition of “google” found at wordspy.com or revising it to take into account the trademark status of Google.
I understand what’s involved in trademark protection, but “google” is an important new verb, so I certainly don’t want to delete it from the site. I also don’t want any legal hassles. Is there a response I can send to this lawyer that will allow me to keep this entry? What if I just acknowledge that Google(tm) is a trademark of Google Technologies Inc.? Would that be good enough? When is a word deemed to have become generic? Search Lexis-Nexis for “googled or googling or (google w/7 verb)” and you’ll get nearly 400 citations. Surely this cat’s out of the trademark bag.
P.S. I expect the ADS will soon receive a similar letter for selecting the verb “google” as “Most useful” and runner-up for WOTY, and for having the temerity to post this on the ADS Web site.
Apparently, that letter above was leaked and it made Google look like a heavy-handed monopoly. Google received a lot of hate mail, and much of the Slashdot Geek Community was upset with Google.
I think Google’s tongue-in-cheek invitation posted on the Google blog, clearly written by internal Google PR and Lawyers, might make the Google trademark even more household than it already is — asking people not to do something usually takes on the opposite effect.
Back to Disambiguation
So, I checked out Wordnet to see what senses it had for Google. Here’s what WordNet has:
- noun.communication>S: (n) Google (a widely used search engine that uses text-matching techniques to find web pages that are important and relevant to a user’s search)
- verb.cognition>S: (v) google (search the internet (for information) using the Google search engine) “He googled the woman he had met at the party”; “My children are googling all day”
What Google, the company, doesn’t want is for the verb “Google” to be synonomous with the verb “Search X on the Internet”, such that one could potentialy use the verb “Google” in the following ways:
- I googled “MySpace” on Ask.com
- She googled for videos of ABC’s LOST and “YouTube” on Yahoo!
- We googled “Family History” on MSN
- My wife googled for “Photo Sharing” and “Scrapbooking” and “Photo Book” on Blingo*
Items (1 – 3) are clearly what Google has taken issue with. But, item #4 is interesting because Blingo, the company, is a search engine — kinda — it’s really a company built on top of the Google search engine. But, Blingo is a seperate company and it has its own brand. In other words, Blingo is a brand built on top of the Google search engine. So, even though the phrase:
“I googled on Blingo”
appears to be violating the usage convention set-out by Google, it really doesn’t because the “googling” is on a Google engine. Google attorneys: can you shed some light on this one?
Back to the Philippines
I grew up in the Philippines. There, the brand “Coke” is everywhere. In fact, everything drinkable is a “Coke.” Coke has become synonomous with the phrase “any liquid, edible, soda that can be consumed through the mouth and is drinkable.” At a restaurant, you ask for a “Coke” and specify if you want a 7-up or a Sprite or a Mountain Dew. Regardless of brand or flavor, ALL soda is referred to as “Coke.” Again, from a marketer’s perspective, this is a great thing — Coke is a household name. But to Coca-Cola attorneys, I’m sure they didn’t like this but . . . they couldn’t stop the tide, however, — the consumer and their perception is what rules and what wins, not what the company wishes the public ought to feel about the company or product, or how the public and the customers ought to lexically use the name of the company or the product.
Invitation to Google (the company)
Let it go. Let the world run with your good name and let the consumers use the utterance “Google” as either a verb, noun, and regardless of search engine used (per items 1 – 3). Just let it go. History and Pragmatism has a way of letting the truth win and error fall by the wayside. Google (the company) is the winner in the search space and controls a chunk of the search and advertising market. Most likely, Google (the company) will continue to dominate this space for sometime to come. Ease up a little and let some things go.
Brands are about what consumers think — their perception is what counts, *not* what the company wants. Sure, companies can regulate and control their brand messaging as much as they please, but at the end of the day, the consumer’s perception, usage, and language will win. Language survives because it’s dynamic. Companies that follow the model of language might have a better chance for survial too. It’s about the customer, not necessarily about the company.
- John Battelle utters a three-word, uneducated expletive.
- Official Google Blog — the post of controversy.
- Ben Metcalfe, of Citizen Agency, throws an unencumbered hissy fit.
- The Ask.com blog has a very thoughtful post — a response to Google.
- The Yahoo! search blog also responds — good stuff in the comments.
- A Former Googler weighed in a few months ago on this topic.