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Google aims to teach Gen Z how to ‘internet better’

The web giant launches a marketing campaign to lure younger users back to Search, but does its patronizing tone miss the mark?

Google aims to teach Gen Z how to ‘internet better’

A couple of weeks ago, Google revealed that 40% of 18 to 24-year-olds prefer TikTok or Instagram search over cheugy, Boomer-style Googling. Since then, the internet giant has come back fighting, by launching an educational campaign aimed at Gen Z.

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Called “Let’s Internet Better,” the crusade features a series of short animated videos targeting misinformation, con artists, and catfishing online. Positioned as a call to action to help people become “smarter internetters” by using Google Search for fact-checking, the campaign logo features a rainbow color scheme and a shooting mouse pointer–a riff on the 1980s-era “The More You Know” television PSAs.

The 15-second videos have tongue-in-cheek titles, such as “Did someone just buy the sun?” and “Should you put slugs on your face?”

With more than 90% of global search-engine market share, Google Search is in no way facing any danger of obsolescence–though attrition of younger audiences and product searches to social media platforms and Amazon.com could be worrying early signs of changing consumer behavior.

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Google says the campaign was designed with the intention to resonate with “Gen Z’s tone, humor, and aesthetics” to be a “fun, yet self-aware PSA that’s supportive and informative.”

“With this campaign, we wanted to speak directly to Gen Z, digital natives who shape much of today’s internet culture,” says Rebecca Michael, senior marketing director, Google Search. “By partnering with them to think critically about the information they come across online and arming them with the tools and resources to check the facts and ensure credibility, we hope they’ll set the pace for others and help us make the Internet a safer, better place.”

As part of the initiative, Google has partnered with some top TikTok creators—including Hank Green, Matt Taylor, Antonio Baldwin, and Alexia Del Valle—to publish content around internet safety and fact-checking. There are also videos that provide back-to-basics lessons in subjects such as reverse-image search.

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Fair enough. Yet with reports and FTC data showing that it’s older age groups who are increasingly falling victim to online fraud–to the tune of $3 billion last year in the United States alone–it’s curious that the search giant has invested in an internet literacy campaign targeting Gen Z, a digitally native “hypercognitive generation” researchers describe as “very comfortable with collecting and cross-referencing many sources of information.”

“Google is the default for Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers—in much the same way that Sears used to be the default for shopping,” says Flynn Zaiger, CEO of digital marketing and design agency Online Optimism. “Legacy and digital brands continually underestimate the diversity of Gen Z and their ability to critically think.”

Beyond social media apps and Amazon.com, in recent years, many websites and platforms, such as Reddit and LinkedIn, have doubled down on scaling user-generated content and improving search. And while the long-term sociological effects of narrowing search to within the parameters of niche internet communities are not yet known, a strong case can be made in support of theories that point to increased political and societal polarization–with The Network State by Balaji Srinivasan, a best-selling new release that details how to start a new country, providing a dystopian warning of where we might be headed.

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Still, if nothing else, the campaign signals the degree to which understanding the habits and mindset of Gen Z users has become a major objective for the brain trust behind Google Search. As Prabhakar Raghavan, the company’s senior vice president of knowledge and information, explained at a business conference in Aspen, “We keep learning, over and over again, that new internet users don’t have the expectations and the mindset that we have become accustomed to. The queries they ask are completely different.”

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About the author

Danica Lo is a Fast Company contributing editor covering marketing, branding, and communications.

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