June 10, 2010, 12:31 PM — Google search engine users were surprised this morning to find a colorful background picture serving as "wallpaper" on the main Google.com web page, just like Microsoft's Bing search engine page has.
The picture, which changes by itself and can be changed by the user (link at lower left corner of the page), was a publicity stunt by Google to demonstrate to users that adding a picture is possible. The page should go back to its usual all-white look tomorrow, although Google didn't tell users that on the page. It's also possible today to get rid of the picture, which Google didn't tell users how to do on the page, either.
The stunt feels to me like an error on Google's part.
Google is the leading search engine. It dominates the space. Google became popular mainly from the quality of search results. But it's also a hit with users because of its minimalist vision. Google has overcome the temptation to load their search page up with decorative and even functional junk, as have most of its competitors. No, Google had the right vision for a search engine -- minimalism with an occasional cartoon with its logo.
Then Microsoft came along with a different vision: No minimalism, but bold graphics in the place of white space. Who had the right vision, Google or Microsoft?
Nearly all hard-core Google fans would argue that Google had the right vision -- less is better. Decoration is annoying, distracting and probably hits performance.
The problem with Google's image stunt is that it feels like a crisis of confidence. It's as if Google is telling us, you know, Microsoft really did have the better vision. It's better to have visual complexity on a search engine page. Just give it a try!
In 1985, Coca-Cola suffered from a similar crisis in confidence. Coke was the original, but upstart Pepsi was sweeter. So Coca-Cola rolled out the "New Coke," which tasted a bit more like Pepsi.
Although most soda drinkers didn't care, a small but very vocal minority of Coke fans freaked out, and slammed the company, threatening boycotts. These "influencers" convinced the general public that the "New Coke" was worse than the original. Eventually, Coke was forced through declining sales and bad press to bring back the original version, which it branded as "Coke Classic."
Although Coke's numbers came back up, the company had probably lost forever its aura of visionary soda maker in the minds of its most loyal fans.
Today's Bing-wanna-be stunt feels like the introduction of "New Coke" in 1985. Sure, everything goes back to normal tomorrow, just as Coke reverted to its original formula. But for its most loyal fans -- bloggers, search engine freaks, engineers, journalists and other influencers -- Google may have accidentally communicated that it doesn't believe in its own vision anymore.