Is Google Making Us Stupid? A Marketer’s View

This isn’t just an attention grabbing headline. Something’s going on with the way our brains work and it’s especially prevalent with the younger generation. Is Google making us stupid? it’s a great question first asked several years ago by tech author Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic. Now he’s got a whole series of books on the subject.

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I can relate. And so can many people I’ve talked to about this. These days I find I’m much better at skimming. It takes more of an effort to go deep into a book or article. I don’t think that’s an age issue (I hope!) as much as a retraining of my brain issue. To be fair, it’s not just Google’s fault. There are many forces at work on our brains.

USA Today had a major impact on writing styles since it first appeared in 1982. Readers gravitated to their shorter articles, bullet points, and data-filled graphics (today they’re called “infographics.”) So we marketers started to get to the point faster in our writing and used bullet points…lots of bullet points. Unfortunately, USA Today may be at the end of its days thanks to the Internet.

The Internet’s effect on our brains is best exemplified by Google. Google’s value proposition is helping people find the right information, quickly and easily. As they improve their algorithms to track personal preferences and reduce search spammers, they’ve gotten pretty darn good at it. I can usually find what I need with a few quick searches. I just wish I knew what Google isn’t telling me anymore, now that they know me better. But I digress…

What does this have to do to our brain? Well, the more we use search engines (and the Internet), the more we improve our ability to skim short bits of data quickly…looking for that savory nugget that tells us we’ve found what we need. Then we click on a link, quickly skim the first paragraph or an image or a few bullet points on a web page or PDF doc, or we watch a couple seconds of a video and make a go/no go decision. Eventually we find what we need and start to read.

I spend most of my time marketing in the tech world, dealing with engineers and scientists and manufacturers. Marketing to us techies is different…we want more info, not less. But even that’s starting to change. The days of producing a 20 page white paper on a technology topic are long gone. No one has time to read it. So white papers are now 5 pages, max. Better yet, turn it into an interesting visual story and you’ll get a lot more people reading it. Try an infographic, like this one on Lean Manufacturing uploaded to Pinterest by Bishop Wisecarver.

Yesterday, I told my Entrepreneurial Selling class at WPI that it’s critical to be proactive — it’s better to be a trusted resource that helps the customer write the RFP than to be an after-thought that receives the RFP once someone else has influenced the specs.

Today’s customers have access to tons of information thanks to the Internet. But thanks to the Internet, they are better at skimming information than reading lengthy soliloquies. This has a direct impact on what we marketers produce for which portion of the buying cycle.
• Short, sweet, to-the-point ads and problem-solving pieces in order to get the customer’s attention in the early awareness-building stages. At this point, customers still may not be sure how they want to solve the problem they have.
• Tech articles, customer success stories, short white papers, and reviews as they move into the consideration phase.
• Access to trusted resources like your sales or business development teams BEFORE they start generating the RFP.
• Community forums and knowledge bases after they purchase to build loyalty.

Here’s a good visual from Lee Odden that shows examples of how marketing comms change over the course of the customer lifecycle:

Getting back to Nicholas Carr and “Is Google Making Us Stupid…” There is no doubt that those of us who use the Internet a fair amount are seeing a change in how our brains work. Our brains are “massively plastic,” constantly in flux and ever changing to our circumstances and behaviors. The more we do something, the more our brain will change in response. This is how people who lose one sense are able to compensate with another sense. It’s also how we develop habits. This neuroplasticity is one of the reasons Carr is concerned about the effects the Internet is having on us.

At what point do we all start showing signs of Attention Deficit Disorder?

Oh man, am I going to have to learn how to produce those mind-numbing TV ads that change scenes every second just to keep the viewer’s attention? This Mass Effect 3 video game trailer is a good example. Wait! Did you even get to the end of this post? 🙂


  1. C.G. Masi says:

    I think it depends on what we’re reading for. I’m a lot better at skimming than I used to be, too. Especially, I read fewer articles to the end — just stop when I’ve found what I want to know.

    On the other hand, I was sick at home yesterday, and read an entire novel, cover to cover, in one day. Because I wanted to.

    It also depends on the writing. I’ve no trouble sticking with Janet Evanovich or Lee Child all the way through the work. Douglas Adams’ stuff always seems short. On the other hand, I passed on great swaths of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged because she went on-and-on-and-on-and- after making her point.

    Rather, let’s recognize skimming as a skill that Google (and others) help us develop. Real, old-fashioned reading is another skill that takes desire and commitment.

    Not everyone wants to be a reader, but most of us have to be skimmers.

    — CGM

  2. sharilee says:

    Very good point, Charlie. I am definitely a much better skimmer than I used to be. Who needs Eveylyn Woods when you’ve got Google pressing you on to read faster?

    I finished Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains in a few days. Very engaging. I just picked up another one that’s a page turner…Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the VW Beetle. Great history of the times (Hitler, early days of car industry, early days of the ad industry) mixed with the story of how the Beetle almost didn’t come to be.

    Are authors in the last decade or two not quite as engaging as in my earlier years? Or have my expectations changed? I could read one mammoth James Michener novel after another, day in, day out. Now I find I can’t get beyond the first chapter of a lot of books. They just don’t capture my imagination.

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