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Google the Brand Name or google the word?

Joanna Tidball pointed me to some news stories on Google attempts to prevent the use of “google” as a generic and general reference for searching the Internet.

According to The Independent:

In June, Google won a place in the Oxford English Dictionary, while “to google”, with a lower case “g”, was included last month in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, America’s leading reference book.

BBC News’ Jonathan Duffy brings up the issue of world domination by Google and how suppressing such common words may just hurt Google:

Google is best known as an internet search engine but its tentacles have spread to range of other web applications.

There’s Google News – a news portal; Google Webquotes – a database of sayings; Google Glossary – a catalogue of words and phrases; and the spin-off shopping site Froogle.

Yet amid all this activity there is one thing Google is trying to steer clear of – the dictionary.

In the US Google has mutated into a verb. Singletons will “google” a new boyfriend or girlfriend – run their name through a search engine – to check them out. People now talk about “googling” and “being googled”.

Indeed, the online version of Merriam Webster Dictionary lists google as:

Usage: often capitalized
Etymology: Google, trademark for a search engine
: to use the Google search engine to obtain information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web

Many think that this is a bad move on Google’s part and that Google should consider the use of the term in our daily language as a compliment. Micro Persuasion says:

Beyond the sheer legal issues, one of the places where this of course gets fuzzy is in the definition of “media.” How in the world do they expect to enforce this when every blogger under the sun uses the phrase on his/her own sites? It’s part of the pop culture.

This has to go down as one of the worst PR moves in history. They’re getting all this free publicity and it’s right on message. Google sounds like a big arrogant company that has forgotten its roots. That’s too bad.

The idea of common usage being a compliment has gone on for over a hundred years, fought back by lawyers and courts since the Age of Litigation began in the 1800s. The law supports the theory that common language usage dilutes the brand’s impact, yet history tells us that it doesn’t change how a company succeeds. Other factors play into that.

Stephen Baker of Business Week Online recalls how “to xerox” meant photocopy and “to hoover” meant vacuum, representative of when those companies were at the top of their field in their industry as well as the public lexicon.

When was the last time you bought a Xerox copy machine? HP, Canon, and Brother have stepped up the competition and run Xerox out of the small printer market. Hoover was bought by Maytag. Let’s not forget about Kleenex, Jeep, Coca-Cola, Band-Aid, Jello, Disney, Cellophane, Aspirin, Rollerblade, and all the other trademarked names that made their way into our vernacular. “Apple” almost became synonymous with computer and “Ipod” is also causing a language shift. The more popular something is, the more likely people are to call it what it is, by brand name.

Baker continues:

The crackdown makes it look like a company that’s forgotten how to laugh. And no doubt the outfit so brilliant at ferreting out information will have a much harder time controlling it.

Honestly, when “Kleenex” is on my list of things to get at the grocery store, I’m more inclined to buy Kleenex brand tissues than I am an off-brand because of the name. Because I wrote “kleenex” and not “bathroom tissue”, which I don’t use in the bathroom but on my desk at work, or “facial tissue” (it’s for my nose not my face), I will buy the “Kleenex” brand because I wrote it down, thus influencing my buying decisions. The fact that they make something I like and competitors haven’t come close to replacing their quality also plays a role in my purchasing decisions. There is more to corporate staying power, I think, than just the name.

I’ve heard others that when they hear news about a corporation making a stink over trademark name rights, especially when they crack down on small time abusers, they have actually changed their shopping habits, consciously boycotting those products, not wanting to give money to “the bad guys”. After all, as one person told me recently, they work so hard to get us talking about their product, why should they punish someone for talking about their product in their day-to-day language?

The L.A. Times says:

Google Inc.’s eponymous search engine became a sanctioned part of the English language Thursday, when “google” — with a small “g” — earned an entry among the 165,000 or so terms in the 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.

The definition: “to use the Google search engine to obtain information … on the World Wide Web.” As in, “Let me google that.”

Linguists said google entered the lexicon especially quickly. It reached the pages of the dictionary just five years after its first known public reference as a verb in a New York Post article. Usually, it takes 10 to 20 years for words to enter everyday use, if they make it at all.

There is no doubt that the Internet and web has sped up the absorption and acceptance process of language. CNet News reports Google is just one of many tech words that made its way into the dictionary this year, including biodiesel, mouse potato, ringtone, text messaging, and spyware, along with this comment of July 6, 2006:

Merriam-Webster’s definition of “googling,” however, specifically refers to a Google search, not just any search done on the Internet. So far, the company is OK with the new definition.

“Defining google as a verb and as using the Google search engine is appropriate,” a representative for Google told CNET News.com in an e-mail.

Wait a minute. This “representative of Google” has publicly stated that inclusion of “google” in common language is acceptable, and yet Google is taking this to court and sending out nasty letters to cease and desist. A little conflict confusion going on? Or a play on “g” being “okay” while “G” isn’t? Ah, that’s getting your cake and eating it, too. It’s okay to have the word out in the language, but capitalize “She Googled it” and you might be getting a letter from a lawyer? This is confusing.

In E-Commerce Law’s “The Genericide of Google” defends Google’s legal and commercial rights to protect its name, while recognizing the fact that the public will continue to use any reference they want, whether or not judges say otherwise.

Lawyers at Google are probably not jumping for joy over news this week that the term “google” has been added to the latest edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

Certainly, the word was added to the dictionary in recognition of the ubiquity of the Internet search giant and the adoption of the term as a verb by the consuming public. It is now commonplace to hear one’s acquaintances, and characters in television shows and movies, to describe “googling” a person or thing.

Unfortunately, the public’s adoption of the term “google” as a verb may destroy the value of “Google” as a trademark. Trademarks serve as a designator of the source or sponsorship of goods or services. The greatest protection is afforded to trademarks which are highly distinctive and, therefore, highly effective at serving that purpose.

The issue of trademark and copyright infringement is a sensitive one. The Internet Writing Journal takes Google to task:

Now, if only Google would recognize the valid concerns of the Authors Guild — that its members’ copyrights are being infringed upon with the Google book scanning project — perhaps it would get more cooperation from authors. Right now, we expect lots of new novels to feature characters “googling” all kinds of things. And when they say “google,” they’ll mean “searching the Internet using Yahoo to find out information on a given topic.” Ouch. Payback is not pretty.

With the overwhelming current success of Google, do we really think that Yahoo has a chance? That we will “google Yahoo”? Sure, Google will face competition as do all companies, even while they fight for domination and monopoly over online searching, and then the new term may replace “google”.

For a while in the early days of search engines, I did hear people say “I yahooed”, and commercials encouraged us to “yahoooo”, but it was an uncomfortable thing to say, whereas “google” sounds like something you might do and “yahoo” sounds like something a redneck might do that may involve alcohol and the police.

Google Versus Dictionary is Old News Revived

What is even more interesting is how the news media and tech bloggers are treating this as if it is the first time Google made its way into a dictionary and this is new news. Google has been battling inclusion in dictionaries and as a general usage term for several years now. SearchEngineWatch reminded us that this isn’t the first time Google has defended their trademark right:

How long does it take the wheel to spin full circle on the internet? Apparently three years, judging from the outcry over Google’s “new” move to send out trademark protection letters asking people to be careful about how they use the word Google.

We mentioned briefly about the Washington Post getting one of these letters last week. Since then, the Independent came out with its To google or not to google? It’s a legal question article, stating:

“But the California-based company is becoming concerned about trademark violation. A spokesman confirmed that it had sent the letters. ‘We think it’s important to make the distinction between using the word Google to describe using Google to search the internet, and using the word Google to describe searching the internet. It has some serious trademark issues.'”

Is becoming? Change that to “has long been concerned,” and it’s accurate. Let’s flashback to March 2003, and my Google Acts To Protect Trademark from that time:

“Now Google’s first publicized action to protect its trademark from being transformed into a generic word has occurred. The company sent what’s now become a well-cited letter to Word Spy editor Paul McFedries asking him to identify Google as a trademark, after McFedries featured Google as a word of the day on his web site.”

On February 26, 2003, Google Weblog reported that Google asked to be removed from the dictionary then:

Paul McFedries: Google trademark concerns. Google’s trademark lawyer writes: “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 like Cory’s take: “I’ve googled many factoids about this in the past, being the good blogger that I am, and printed them out so I could xerox them for my friends. That’s all I have to say for now, since I have to run out and buy some kleenex and aspirin, and trademark lawyers can kiss my ass.”

The definition still stands at Wordspy, considered among the first “dictionaries” to actually define Google. The definition page also cites specific usage of the “general sense of the verb” from published articles, part of a long held tradition for qualification criteria for inclusion in a dictionary.

SearchEngineWatch made another good point. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition is “To use the Google search engine to obtain information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web”, therefore, if you are using Google to google, then the terminology and usage is “legal”:

In both cases, the definitions are specifically about using Google itself to do a search. That keeps Google happy, as Google told me:

“When we were asked our view about being included, we said that because both dictionaries were defining ‘Google’ as using the Google search engine, not just searching generally on the internet, both were appropriate. We believe that the note is consistent with the dictionary definitions.”

I disagree with the last part, however. The “note” of advice isn’t consistent with the definitions. Let’s go back to some of those inappropriate remarks:

Inappropriate: He googles himself.

Inappropriate: I googled that hottie.

They’re appropriate if you inherently understand or mean these were done on Google — and I think many people would indeed assume that to be the case. So maybe the guidance sheet needs some updating.

According to Dictionary Reference, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams was originally created for radio in 1978 and published as a book in 1979, long before many who work on Google were born, and Adams used the term Google:

…in which one of Deep Thought’s designers asks, “And are you not,” said Fook, leaning anxiously forward, “a greater analyst than the Googleplex Star Thinker in the Seventh Galaxy of Light and Ingenuity which can calculate the trajectory of every single dust particle throughout a five-week Dangrabad Beta sand blizzard?”

I remember trying to say that phrase over and over, trying pronounce “Googleplex Star Thinker in the Seventh Galaxy of Light and Ingenuity” as fast as possible. We had great fun with “Drangrabad Beta sand blizzards” and “Gargle Blasters”, too. What would I have to say today to get around the trademark issues? “Google-brand-plex Star Thinker in the Seventh Galaxy of Light and Ingenuity”?

I have to admit that every time I hear someone say “I googled it”, I cringe. I know they don’t know what they are saying, violating the trademark and diluting the company name, but they are only repeating what they read on the web, magazines, and newspapers, and hear on television and radio, as well as hear from their friends. Everyone is saying it. So what should I do? Tell everyone I hear say the word to not use it because it’s bad for Google the company?

Well, Google, you wanted fame and fortune, and you got both. You worked overtime to get us googling and we did. It’s embedded in our language. Google, you taught us to google.

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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen, member of the 9Rules Network

Member of the 9Rules Blogging Network

3 Comments

  1. Posted September 6, 2006 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    If Google complained about using the whole word, why don’t we drop the “G”. So instead of “i google you.” or “i am googling.”, we can say, “i oogle you.” or “i am oogling.”

    My definition of oogle would be to stare at the computer monitor.

    What do you think?

  2. Posted September 6, 2006 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    I really hope some marketing decision makers at Google reads you conclusive article. Their lawyers makes fools of themselves and the company. Not only is it flattering and the best proof of success, when a trademark makes its way into common vocabulary, it is the best of marketing vehicles you can get.

    Of course it doesn’t hurt the company or its trade mark. People are not stupid – they know the difference between “to google”, Google, the company and Google, the search engine.

    I remember having a vespa, that is a scooter ( google it if you don’t know ), but the brand was Lambretta. Everyone I knew called it a vespa, and Vespa was the more successful Italian scooter manufacturer at the time. Vespa means “wasp” in Italian ( I googled that too – on Google by the way ;), and it’s humming sound and it’s brand didn’t suffer.

    Google should fire its lawyers. If the whole buzz is not planned after the principle, that all publicity is good publicity, and the case is dropped as the buzz drops.

  3. Isaac
    Posted January 16, 2007 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Remember, that to hold a trademark on a name that the company is legally required to defend said trademark. If they don’t, they will lose it. These lawyers may be going a little overboard, but you have to draw the line somewhere.


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  1. [...] The idea that WordPress could become a generic name like Kleenex, Jeep, and Google is exciting to think about. Instead of saying “I’m going to blog that”, you could say “I’m going to WordPress that”. Wow! [...]

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