Differentiation Can Be Brutal in the Web Search Business


“Search engine positioning” is no easy feat – even if you *are* a search engine, it seems. So how are the engines positioning *themselves*?

Along with the unauthorized biography of Jerry Seinfeld, my holiday fun reading was a business book: Differentiate or Die by Trout and Rivkin. Suddenly, the laws of positioning rule my daily thoughts.

As the authors hilariously recite, in the old days, advertising gurus would lament the lameness of sales copy. But in those days, in spite of many mistakes being made, at least they were trying to sell something. Today’s vexing branding campaigns appear to actually dissuade the viewer from thinking about the product or the company. How’s this slogan for a great use of an airline’s advertising dollars? “Welcome Aboard. Really.” (That was somebody’s advertising slogan. Really.)

So many companies go so wrong by ignoring the fundamental principles of positioning; primary amongst them being the fact that there is only so much space in the consumer’s fried brain. You can’t occupy valuable mindshare by simply *saying* something unique, though. You’ve got to *have* something unique. Your product needs to be something different, and your company needs to walk the walk on a consistent basis.

I’m sure you can think of many examples of fuzzy positioning and poor communications, and just as many that seem to almost uncannily “get it.” I watched with some awe when Honda rolled out a campaign with race car driver Jacques Villeneuve zooming around in a plain old Honda Civic and then saying seriously: “Inside every Honda, there’s a Honda engine.” Honda engines have a great reputation amongst knowledgeable drivers and automotive writers. Why not leverage that, and remind people that it’s the engine that makes the car go, not the leasing options or the keyless remote entry? Honda has the right idea.

It’s true that your product doesn’t necessarily have to embody the qualities that you associate it with any better than your competitor’s products, particularly if you’re the leader. AOL’s “It’s so easy to use, no wonder it’s #1” is believed by many of its users, even though most non-users would dispute the claim of “ease of use.” The point is, AOL as the “Internet with training wheels” has always had a clear identity. The ads show ordinary-looking people sitting around kitchen tables talking about things AOL lets them do online. The ease-of-use, family-appropriate theme is never confusing, always the same. For their customers, there is not only a tangible monetary and time cost to switching, there’s also a mental price to be paid for even thinking about it. That mental price is yet steeper when you’re a self-professed novice.

You can get addicted to thinking about positioning. Welch’s grape juice has been a favorite of mine for years. Last year, they reformulated their concentrated juice so that it became a “drink” – replacing much of the natural juice with sugar and fake stuff. I’ve since discovered that a company called Black River actually makes juice that tastes so much like real juice, it’s like being inside the grape. I’m willing to bet Welch’s loses market share with its me-too “drink,” since all companies like Black River have to say is: “Black River juice. It’s actually juice. Juice. Really.” Imagine leaving a hole in your market by allowing a small competitor the chance to claim it’s *actually delivering* to consumers what you *used to* deliver before you decided to pull the wool over your customers’ eyes. Like we aren’t going to notice? Imagine if winemakers tried that stunt. “Chateau de Piffle: We decided to make it with dandelions, but to appease you, we’ve doubled the alcohol content.”

In any case, the search industry isn’t exempt from the laws of positioning. Consumers only have so much memory. There are a lot of ways to lose in this business. It’s brutal.

Here’s a review of current and past contenders for mindshare supremacy in the web search business, and what they might say if asked for a brief positioning statement.

AltaVista: “Once, we were the world’s leading search engine. Then we were a portal. Now, we’re yesterday’s search engine.” In a world where what’s next matters most, this spells D-O-O-M. They have an enterprise business, to be sure, but one wonders if even that can survive given the FUD that is spreading about the company’s commitment. We suspect that it would be better for AV to scatter its ashes and make way for a regrowth of something fresh and hot.

Ask Jeeves: “Ask a question, get an answer.” Unfortunately the technology didn’t work as advertised, and it has been beefed up with the recently-acquired Teoma, which has great technology but too closely resembles the category leader, Google. Long term result: fuzzy branding, lack of differentiation. Selling Jeeves merchandise doesn’t help the company’s focus any, either.

Hotbot: “We used to be the hottest, coolest, search engine on the net. A long, long time ago. Then, we became best known for serving stale Inktomi results and as one of the only places to submit free to the Inktomi index, until Ink stopped accepting free submissions. More recently, we shut down the old site and created this quirky metasearch engine to help Inktomi get some press so it could get bought out by Yahoo. Now we’re stuck with this cool little site that no one will use. Much like the old Hotbot.”

Prediction: after an initial bout of tire-kicking, Hotbot will be used by experts and insiders, not consumers. Gary Price (a research expert) loves it, for example. That’s a great start, and it’s good to impress the experts. But that does not always translate into consumer adoption. The new Hotbot is cool, but it won’t be hot. They’ll try to make it so, however, with a $1 million ad campaign with the tagline “More Search. More Engine.”

Truth in advertising wouldn’t have worked. Then they would have had to say: “Somebody else’s search. Somebody else’s engine.” Ouch.

Inktomi: “We’ve always been one of the biggest and best indexes and have been through various generations of relevance ranking technology. Our differentiator was that we sold ourselves not to consumers, but to portal partners. We now work for Yahoo.”

We’ll be watching very closely to see if post-acquisition “blahs” water down the quality of Inktomi-powered Yahoo Search. One good thing about being acquired and having no hope of selling your product to your acquirer’s competitors: no need to differentiate, since it’s Yahoo’s overall navigational experience and product lineup that now takes center stage, while Inktomi quietly powers one part of that. Inktomi has this “keeping quiet” strategy pretty well figured out. So much so that they nearly went belly up.

Metacrawler: “We do metasearch. In fact, the brand name Metacrawler has become something of a generic term for metasearch.”

You can’t argue with that, so long as they continue to do what they say and don’t water it down with too many undifferentiated paid results. Metasearch users really want metasearch. To do this, there need to be enough reputable search sources to actually perform a metasearch on. This is a great brand that hangs in the balance. It would do best by staying the course, and focusing on “being” metasearch. That means keeping an eye out for product features that might generate industry buzz, and in general, continuing to be “metasearch geeks.” If the metasearch leader can’t act as an advocate for metasearch, no one else is going to do it. Fortunately for metacrawler, Hotbot is spending $1 million on a fancy Hill Holliday ad campaign to do just this. Metacrawler should wait until the dust settles, then come back and remind users just who “invented” metasearch. Might not even take a million bucks to do it.

Dogpile: “Look at this big, fun pile of stuff!”

Another metasearch engine – this one aims at novices. Today, many of those novices – even the AOL gang – like Google, but still fail to truly appreciate or understand metasearch. No matter. What’s important is that they seem to like it. “If you can’t find it here, you can’t find it” they say. These users believe the proposition and remember the name of the product. It’s not going to take over the world, but it’s going to hold its own as long as there is a crowd of people who can appreciate a non-technical explanation of why metasearch is useful. Woof woof woof. That means “we’re connecting now with the consumers Hotbot hopes it can find.”

Excite Search, Webcrawler: “We’re old brands that Infospace now serves ads on.” Strictly short term stuff. There really is such a thing as too much ad-laden metasearch, believe it or not. Even if you take away some of the ads, what’s the difference? Can you see a difference? No one has cared about Webcrawler for ten years.

Direct Hit: Special mention is warranted, since “popularity engine” was a unique category that caught the fancy of many users. Unfortunately the technology didn’t work too well, and what’s left of it, after the bloated $500 million (all stock, whose value promptly plunged 95%) Ask Jeeves acquisition, has been integrated into Teoma, which powers Ask Jeeves. Good little boost for Teoma… if Teoma can ever grab some market share under the wing of Ask Jeeves, which seems improbable. There are all too many stories like this. Unique stories that were overhyped and then, underhyped. At the market bottom many got shut down. The “popularity engine” concept is alive and well in several places. It will peek its head out again someday in a pure play or two.

Google: “We’re #1. We lead the planet in the number of search queries served, and we’re the #4 web site in the world, trailing only the top three portals in traffic. Our product is indispensable. We have been first and best in various aspects of the delivery of search engine results, and have implemented our revenue model without disrupting that bread and butter. People even marvel at how fast the search engine is. People just love the product.”

Needless to say, these are the types of things only a leader can say. People love the product. They equate the product (Google) with the category (search). This can last a long time if there is sufficient homage paid to what got them here in the first place. So far, so good.

I do worry that Google will indeed knock itself out of its own advantageous position. Having stumbled into the clean, search-only site design, Google’s “keep it simple, stupid” message was what pulled people in (it was only later that these users appreciated the sophistication of the technology). That simplicity was so important to Google’s success, others tried in vain to copy it (AltaVista’s Raging Search, for example). Today, Google is branching out into a few other things. Unlike the AltaVista portal folly, though, Google’s multiple priorities – Usenet search, news search, image search, shopping search, etc. – all do involve its core competency, which is search. I really did not like it when they started monkeying with Google Answers, the research-on-demand service. It’s all too easy for smart people like these Googlers to get bored and lose track. Hopefully some seasoned management types will save the smart people from themselves.

100Hot: Remember that one? Acquired by Go2Net, then left to die on the vine. Kind of like a mini-Alexa or mini-Media-Metrix thing, except they gave up on making it work and just made it into the same old thing, a listing of a bunch of sites paying for placement. Advertising in itself is not a search engine. Never has been. Another sad story. A technology that the end user apparently cared more about than its inventors did.

FAST Search: “We’re #3, and we supply search results to the #4 portal.”

Good enough? Relatively speaking, not bad. But not an entirely enviable position to be in. Product differentiation efforts have more or less failed to make the desired impact, as the main competition, Inktomi, Altavista, and Google, can leapfrog FAST in the product department, at least as far as consumers are concerned. At the same time, now that Inktomi is Yahoo’s property, FAST becomes a sort-of-#2 contender and possible successor to Inktomi as the MSN supplier. And they become a minor threat if and when the AOL-Google partnership comes up for renewal.

FAST’s early potential differentiator, speed, is a non-factor since Google is probably faster.

We’d recommend that FAST continue to pursue a “we’re #2 so we try harder” type of image. If they are going to come out with product features, they must be features that Google can’t match or beat (most of the hype we’ve seen so far from FAST has been equaled by others shortly afterwards… remember, I’m not talking about industry insiders who may see subtle differences, I’m talking about what consumers need and want out of a search tool). If FAST intends to take a lead in news search, for example, it’ll need to do more than tweak. (Otherwise, Google, Moreover, and Altavista, to say nothing of well-managed portals, can kick their butt from a consumer-recognition standpoint.)

In the meantime, custom work for the enterprise sector is a nice honest living to supplement the consumer side.

And last, but not least:

Library of Congress “Explore the Web” page: “We’re the frickin Library of Congress.”

It coulda been a contender. Really.

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