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Genericide Watch: Is Google At Risk?

Jason Lee Miller
Staff Writer
Published: 2006-05-23

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It's much too late, if those in charge of protecting Google's brand are honest, to extract "to google" from the English language (a googlectomy?). But perhaps Google has conquered the feared genericide of its trademark, emerging as the literary god-man hero among Kleenex boxes, Rollerblades and Xerox machines.

When Wordspy.com included google as a verb among its log of neologisms in 2003, Google's legal team was not amused and asked that it be removed from the online dictionary:

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.

A note after the definition now informs the reader "that Google™ is a trademark identifying the search technology and services of Google Technologies Inc." But google the verb, a genuine reflection of the language, is still there among other new phases like "Google bombing," "Googleverse," and "Googlejuice." They forgot Googtopia, Googler and Googlite.

Google's branding team still sends out haughty emails asking it be made clear that a person cannot just go around googling on any old Internet search engine (I got one of these just last October). In November, Rose Hagan, head of Google's legal team, told Managing Intellectual Property Week that the issue is still at the top of her mind.

"Genericization is a concern and something we have to face," said Hagan. "We haven't got to the point of running an ad yet, like Xerox, but it is definitely something we do consider."

Their fear is that Google will go the way of the escalator (moving staircase), of aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), or the Allen wrench (hexagonal screwdriver), being included among lists like this one as google (to search).

The power of the Google brand is no doubt a Catch 22 to the experienced marketer. The goal at the outset is to make your brand a household name, but not to the extent that it loses its majesty by becoming "common." Coca-Cola struggles even in its own home of Georgia where Coke can refer to any brown carbonated beverage. If not from the South, you may be confused after ordering a Coke and the server asks "what kind?"

Adobe has a grammatical guide for how to use the brand name "Photoshop":

CORRECT: The image was enhanced using Adobe® Photoshop® software.
INCORRECT: The image was photoshopped.

But is Google really in danger of that? The same crew that sent very serious-sounding emails to those who would abuse their brand were conspicuously silent when Pontiac instructed commercial viewers to "google" the Pontiac brand name. In fact, Google consented beforehand. Pontiac and Mazda hoovered up a crock pot of publicity, and Google was further validated as the King of Search.

No one yahoos; there's no MSNing anything; some may Ask Jeeves from time to time (even if he was encased in carbonite shortly after retirement). None of them, though, has the command of the search world like Google consistently maintains.

In their chronicling of the etymology of "to google," Wordspy notes that it first appeared in print on January 14, 2001 for the Telegraph-Herald in an article entitled "Googling is newest date thing," penned by Amy Gilligan. Five years later, after successfully infiltrating the English language, it is commonly understood what is meant by the verb "to google," and that it is impossible to google anything on Yahoo!

But who can say for sure? It took escalator, invented in 1892 and trademarked by Otis Elevator Company in 1899, until 1950 to become officially generic. But these are different times, and we are reminded of that when we see a 12 year-old using Google as his start page and never considers searching anywhere else.


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About the Author:
Jason L. Miller is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

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