Google’s halo is slipping – have you checked yours lately

Increasingly vocal criticisms of Google suggest that its halo is slipping. In psychological terms, it is teetering on the edge of falling victim to the “reverse halo effect”.

HaloThe “halo effect” itself is whereby we judge a brand, a company, or a person based on just one fact we know about them. For instance, if we find a politician is warm and friendly, we tend to think they have good policies. If we think the customer service of a particular company is good, we tend to think they are good employers. If you like the content on a specific web site, you automatically think the author is good in other respects as well.

Of course, making these blanket judgements about a brand or an individual is nonsense. In the cold light of daytime analysis we might realise that just because a company has great TV advertising doesn’t mean the boss is good to work for. However, repeated studies of the halo effect show us that we don’t access our analytical brain when making judgements about other people or companies.

For a decade now, Google has benefited from the halo effect. They come along on their white charger with a new kind of search engine that frees us all from the difficulty of finding things online. Whoopee! We fall in love with them. Their search produced good, accurate results and so the halo effect came into play. Along comes a raft of other products – GMail, YouTube etc – and we all rush like lemmings to use them. Our brains tell us that they must be worth looking at, after all, they’re from Google.

Now, though, there’s the possiblity that the reverse halo effect will come into play for Google. This happens when we assign wholesale negativity to a company or person based on a single piece of information. For instance, you get bad customer service from a business and you hate them like crazy – even if their products are just what you need.

Google is starting to get criticised much more than ever before. True, it has had critics over the years – me included – but the negative comments have been brushed off as a result of the halo effect. Now, though, those criticisms are becoming much louder and from people with real “sway”. The Wall Street Journal, major newspaper publishers, book  publishers and philosophers are now becoming braver and starting to take on the behemoth. Before too long that level of criticism could reveal a major negative weakness in Google – and that’s the point the reverse halo effect will come into play. We’ll all hate Google products and services because of one thing – regardless of how good the other parts of Google may be for us.

The reverse halo effect a real danger to businesses – including yours. For instance, take the jeweller Gerald Ratner. He made a well-documented gaffe in 1991 when he described just two of his store’s products as “crap”. However, the reverse halo effect came into play and everyone made the judgement that because two product were rubbish, it meant that all the others were too (which of course was not true). Furthermore, because it was a clear PR disaster, everyone assumed – thanks to the reverse halo effect – that Mr Ratner himself was some kind of dimwit. That, of course, was far from the truth because he was a hugely successful retailer in the UK. The reverse halo effect lasted a long time for Mr Ratner; in 2005 he said he still hadn’t got over it.

How long do you think it will take the Royal Bank of Scotland – or indeed the whole banking industry – to get over their current reverse halo effect? How long could your business survive if your halo slipped?

You need to protect the future of your business by ensuring that you have the halo effect in place. Many web sites, for instance, fail to do this. They have poor navigation, for example, which we get frustrated by. We then think negatively about the whole company – bringing into play the reverse halo effect.

Have a well structured, easy to navigate web site with good search functions and hey presto, people will like your site and the halo effect comes into play – they like your products and services already…! Have a responsive email system, that provides quick replies and – bingo – people like your web site, because of the halo effect. Be nice to people in public, get them to like you and – whoopee – they’ll like your web site (even if it has some faults).

Many online businesses miss out on sales because they fail to take into account the halo effect. They believe that minor problems with their site, or their search system, or their shopping basket are something people can “live with”. They won’t. The reverse halo effect comes into play and getting those people to re-engage with you – as Gerald Ratner points out – can take decades.

What do you need to do? Make sure people like you and your web site – they will then love your products and services too. And be ever on your guard for the potential for your halo to slip. Just like Google has responded today – you need to react quickly in order to prevent your halo from drooping.

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