It’s not good to Google in any language

Do you Google? Everyone does, but Google would prefer that you didn’t use their trademarked name as a verb:

Search engine giant Google, known for its mantra “don’t be evil”, has fired off a series of legal letters to media organisations, warning them against using its name as a verb.

Of course they have to protect their trademark, but it seems to me that heavy-handed letters from lawyers in this case is a bit like King Canute trying to stop the tide. Apple is suffering from similar legal excess over the iPod name.

Who doesn’t say “I googled your brand” (or whatever subject)? Note the lower-case spelling. I’d say that the name has already passed into generic usage, much as brand names like Hoover (in the UK) and Xerox (in the US) have done.

Now think about languages other than English to get a sense of the scale of how a brand name will slip into generic usage if that brand name really is popular.

The Dutch language, for instance. Google’s lawyers are wielding a heavy hand with letters to media organizations in The Netherlands over the definition of the new Dutch verb ‘googelen’:

[…] Google’s letter includes helpful examples of appropriate and inappropriate use of the company’s trademark. For example: “I used Google to check out that guy I met at the party” is fine, but “I googled that hottie” is not. It is also acceptable to say: “he ego-surfs on Google to see if he’s listed in the results” but not “he googles himself.”

[…] ‘Googelen’ was first detected in the Dutch language in 2003. The latest edition of the ‘Dikke van Dale’ dictionary describes it as looking for information on the internet. Editor-in-Chief Ton den Boon said on Tuesday that he had not received the letter from Google.

“It is a well-known phenomenon that companies try to protect their brands in this way,” he said laconically. But van Dale does not intend to alter its definition. “We describe contemporary Dutch. You, I, and everyone uses googelen in this sense,” Den Boom said.

Google might be able to lean on the mainstream media, but every individual? And what about the benefits that Google may accrue from so many people thinking ‘google’ when they want to search the net – even if they use a different search engine?

Excuse me while I google for more about this conundrum…

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Richard Bailey

    Astonishing – if true. While you do lose legal protection by the change to lower case, the word-of-mouth benefits are incalculable. Imagine Google’s past, present or future competitors turning down the opportunity to be the lower case market leader… Inconceivable.

  2. neville

    They are dead serious about trademark protection, Richard. That’s no surprise at all – which company with valuable brands isn’t? – and no one should criticize them because of that.

    I wonder if thay have registered ‘google’ (the lower-case version). It’s not shown in the exhaustive list of Google trademarks – scroll down the page to Google Trademarks and Suggested Accepted Generic Terms.

    Thinking more about how people use the word ‘Google’, literally everyone I know uses it as a verb when referring to searching the net. I can’t see how Google can ever prevent that.

  3. Susan Getgood

    I expect they know they can’t prevent the use of “Google” as a generic, but they have to make these efforts to defend the trademark to keep it from passing *legally* into the generic. If it does that — becomes a legal generic — the word could be used inside someone else’s product name, and Google’s brand value literally stolen. You cannot trademark a generic term.

    So they make these “good faith” efforts to defend the trademark against improper use. They have to use the proper legal language and so on to make the case strong that they defended the mark in case they ever need it in a full-blown trademark defense.

    I doubt they really want to prevail in the WOM sense. Think about it, the only way to “win” this battle is to lose the dominant market position so that you no longer define the market. I haven’t heard the term ‘Xerox’ in reference to photocopies in a long time. But ‘Kleenex’ for ’tissue’ is still going strong. Did Xerox do a better job than Kimberly-Clark defending the mark and getting us to switch to the actual generic term ‘photocopy’? Doubt it. Reality is: Xerox no longer defines the market for copiers, so the mark no longer works as well as a generic.

    I’m sure Google would rather be Kleenex than Xerox.

  4. Kevin Behringer

    I understand the need to protect a trademark, but I think this and the Apple situation are going too far and missing an opportunity.

    I remember in college that brands like Kleenex and Xerox (to follow Susan’s post) were referenced as brands that have become synonymous with their product…as a good thing.

    Why would you not want people to tell their friend to “G***le (protecting your blog from any legal ramifications Neville!) something if you were in charge of the brand? Sure, you have to monitor and make sure that it isn’t used in other product names (again channeling Susan), but I think that by trying to prevent people from using your brand name to converse with their friends cuts the viral aspect off at the knees.

    Same with iPod.

    Why wouldn’t you want your name to be used EVERY time someone discusses an MP3 Player? I know I have an iRiver, but when I tell people what it is, I have to say, “It’s like an iPod” so they understand. Why wouldn’t you want that exposure?

  5. Susan Getgood

    Kevin — I think they do want the exposure, but in order to protect the brand, they have to take the legal actions. It wouldn’t work legally if they didn’t use the proper language.

    It is quite schizophrenic really — you achieve the goal of becoming the definition of the segment, and then you have to spend time and money preventing people from using you as the definition of the segment. Catch-22

    I would be very surprised if Google starts suing folks, can’t really say for Apple.

  6. neville

    While I can also see the opportunities Google might be missing here (Kevin), I can understand why they do need to take all the steps required in order to legally protect their brand (Susan).

    And I think your’re right, Susan: will Google really start suing everyone? Hardly. (Mind you, you look at Apple’s behaviour and you do wonder.)

    There are a couple of good posts over on the Brand Naming Blog that add further thought to this discussion, particularly highlighting a number of well-known companies whose brands have passed into generic usage –

    Will Google be able to prevent this with their brand name? I can’t see how, especially in a global context. The Dutch dictionary example is one that I can imagine happening with many other languages.

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