Why Google doodle

Google doodle
Google doodle

You know those little pictures or animations that sometimes take over the Google homepage? They’re called doodles.

The weird thing is, considering I see them more often than I see some family members, I’ve never really given them much thought. I’ve clicked some, played around on some of the interactive ones. But I’ve never stopped to think how much they must cost to make.

So I did some research (of course, via Google). Turns out those fun little distractions don’t come cheap.

The doodle team (yes, there’s a whole team who do this for a living) is about ten people. (And three office dogs, the fools). They spend thousands of hours thinking up, designing and coding them. That’s a fair amount in wages alone.

These things better be worth it.

A brief history of doodling

The first doodle was designed in 1998, when co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin used it as an out-of-office while they were at Burning Man. They wanted to let users know they were away in case the servers crashed (turns out there was a time when Google would be affected by two guys going to a party).

Google's Burning Man doodle
Google’s Burning Man doodle

The next doodle wasn’t until 2000, to celebrate Bastille Day. Users liked it, the intern who designed it got promoted and more doodles followed.

Now the team aim to produce around 400 doodles a year, 50-100 of these are animated, and 12 are fully interactive.

In fact, doodles are so important to Google that they even got a patent for them.

That’s a lot of effort. Which begs the question – what are these things doing for Google?

What doodles don’t do

Before I dive in to what Google Doodles do do for Google, it’s worth looking at all the things they don’t do.

Doodles don’t improve traffic — Google processes 3.5bn searches every day. Those people will be using Google regardless of the doodle of the day. Has anyone ever thought that they might use a rival search engine, only to be brought back by the celebration of the 131st anniversary of the hole puncher?

Doodles don’t drive sales — Google’s revenue comes from ad clicks, but the main source for the Google doodle is the homepage (which is ad-free).

It does also appear at the top of each search too, but if anything here it’s a distraction. It’s taking people away from the search they made (with all those juicy relevant ads) and putting them into a search they had no intention of making (and therefore less relevance for ads).

Doodles don’t guarantee universal admiration — the doodles have not been without controversy. An analysis showed a skew towards white men being featured, there have been doodles to controversial figures, or uploaded at controversial times. There have even been criticisms for doodles not done and opportunities missed.

And it’s not like they’re helping the economy — one doodle to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man was said to have caused $120m in lost productivity. Another of a playable guitar for Les Paul potentially cost $268.4m.

I’m taking these numbers with a pinch of salt. After all, the users were people looking for a distraction, they probably would have spent that time on Facebook, or cat videos (hey, it was 2011). Anything but working.

But if we just consider just the raw time users spend on them, 10.7 million hours for the Les Paul doodle, that still add up to a hefty amount of distraction, (not to mention work for the Google servers) none of which is fundamentally helping the company.

Google's Les Paul doodle
Google’s Les Paul doodle

So… why?

If doodles come with a cost of time, money and risk of potential embarrassment, all for no direct benefit to the company, why are they doing them?

That’s a big question. In fact, it’s the big question. The one every content marketer’s faced at some point.

It comes in many forms:

  • “Couldn’t we invest that money in more salespeople?”
  • “What’s the point?”
  • Or, my personal favourite, “Why are we making all these resources when we could just make one of those viral videos instead?”

Because of course, the Google doodles are content. They’re great content, (they’re getting people to share the company logo – genius), but they’re content nonetheless. And like all content it can be very hard to accurately show the direct impact on the business.

But, direct or not, the impact content has can be huge. It might be an impact that’s hard to pin down, and therefore easy to underestimate, but it’s there.

And in Google’s case, there’s one huge benefit that makes it worth sinking all that time and money into the doodles.

Doodles change how we think of Google

A big part of content is showing who you are. And the doodles show a softer side of Google. A human side.

This is perhaps more important for Google than it is for any other company in the world. Not only is Google a huge business with more money than some countries, it got to be that big because it serves as the gateway to the world’s knowledge.

There’s a fundamental paradox Google have to deal with. People need to trust them as an unbiased source of information. But their entire business model is to make money from ads. This threatens to undermine that trust.

There have been issues before (such as the ongoing antitrust case in the EU). If they get the balance wrong and lose that trust, they risk being seen as biased, feeding us only the information they want us to see. That’s some full-on Fahrenheit-451-meets-Skynet shit.

In the words of one of their own designers, the appeal of doodles is how “it shows the human behind the machine”.

This is even more important as there are fewer and fewer people, and more and more machines. Google’s deep learning is now responsible for ranking your searches (and no one knows for certain what it could be doing in the future).

As the tech progresses, it’s more important than ever for Google to reassure users there is a person behind the machine.

Your content isn’t about you

As much as content is about showing who you are, it’s not about you. And the doodles aren’t about Google (despite the fact that they have their name prominently featured in each one).

The doodles are a chance for Google to leave users with a piece of information they didn’t know, and by doing so demonstrate that Google themselves are less important than the information they’re curating.

The effect the doodles have on Google’s traffic is minimal. But the people they’re linking to can get benefits like a quarter of a million hits in a day, or climbing 377 places on the Amazon bestseller list.

Now imagine if Google were only sharing when the bosses were away, or bragging about their latest sales figures, or pointing to a press release about how they’d hired a new VP of EMEA. No one would care. No one would click. And certainly no one would share.

If you see content as just a thinly-veiled way to say how amazing your product or company are, people won’t care. But if you go above and beyond, and create something for people, then give it away, you demonstrate you aren’t just in this for the sales. You’re here for something bigger.

They like you more for showing them that something bigger, and you get your name (and ideas) in front of new people.

Which just so happens to lead to more sales. Isn’t that handy?

Why content matters

Google doodles don’t give a direct boost to the bottom line, and they come with a seemingly unnecessary risk. But the reason they exist, the reason that any content exists, is simple.

We make content because we’re doing more than just selling stuff.

The doodles started as a small thing, but have grown into an integral part of how we think of Google. They make them a company we see as fun. We think of them as interesting, intelligent people doing interesting, intelligent things. We trust them.

Google’s great at this. They do this with their doodles, their annual April fool’s day prank, their fun, little search Easter eggs (hint: search “do a barrel roll”, or ask Google for “the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything”).

And it all proves something vital – and intangible – about content marketing.

By taking the time to talk about something other than us, we can actually reveal far more about ourselves. And if people like what they hear, they’ll like us.

They’ll trust us.

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