Reading Brand X vs. Brand Y: Social Effect and Competition in the Software Industry, I'm struck this bit:

So what does this mean for search engine competition and Google? Well, I think increasing a search engine's relevance to become competitive with Google's is a good goal but it is a route that seems guaranteed to make you the Pepsi to their Coke or the Burger King to their McDonalds. What you really need is to change the rules of the game, the way the Apple iPod did.

I'm struck because it reminds me a lot of a conversation I've had with several folks in the last year or so at work.

Them: Once we do X, we'll be as good as Google.
Me: It doesn't matter.
Them: Sure it does!
Me: No, it doesn't. If you want to change people's behavior, you need to give them something dramatically better than what they're used to. This doesn't do that. Being "as good as Google" is the wrong goal.

Now, it's no surprise that we have a few people at work that are hell-bent on beating Google. But sometimes I'm surprised by the way people stop looking at the bigger picture.

Posted by jzawodn at November 25, 2005 01:35 PM

Reader Comments
# Greg said:

People/companies that try to "beat" other people/companies are followers rather than leaders. Google's not obsessed with beating anybody else - they just do their own thing. "Don't play the other guy's game."

on November 25, 2005 01:49 PM
# jim winstead said:

i've always loved the "crap plus one" formulation of this advice:

on November 25, 2005 02:27 PM
# Ed Finkler said:

That might not be a great analogy. Pepsico makes a lot of money being Pepsi and Burger King (and a lot of other things). There are a lot of examples of companies being successful at being VERY similar to the leader in the market. Whether this will also work in the search engine market is debatable, of course.

on November 25, 2005 02:42 PM
# Tim Converse said:

Actually, as one of those hell-bent people, I think you have to do both. Compete then exceed in the important products, _and_ also differentiate dramatically to give reasons to switch.

The latter doesn't take away the need to do the former. Jeremy, do you think it does? Or are you assuming that the head-to-head quality competition will happen anyway, so there's no need to stress it?

on November 25, 2005 04:31 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Yeah, I think the head-to-head comparisons are interesting to those of us in the search world, but not to "normal" people. They're not gonna switch because Yahoo is 4% more relevant than Google. Theyr'e gonna switch when they try Yahoo and are *blown away* by how much better it works than anything they ever tried.

I still remember the first time I used Altavista. It was kinda like that...

on November 25, 2005 04:45 PM
# Tim Converse said:

Erm, that wasn't really my question. My question was: do you believe that incremental relevance improvements aren't competitively necessary? (If your point is that large improvements are better than small ones, that seems too obvious for even me to disagree with. :) )

(By the way, I disagree that small quality changes don't affect switching behavior. And 4% better can mean "absolutely nailed it for 4% of users...". But that's the kind of conversation you can't really have without looking at data, and I don't think we'll do that here. :) )

on November 25, 2005 05:13 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Okay, I see what you're asking. What I'm trying to say is that incremental relevancy increases are necesary but not sufficient for the goal of getting someone to "switch."

on November 25, 2005 05:26 PM
# Micah said:

Isn't that still the wrong idea though? I mean, why are you trying to get users to Switch® to Yahoo, just because it's your brand? So that you can make more money? Or is it because you want to give the users a better time on the internet, a way to make their lives mokre productive and happier?

on November 25, 2005 06:57 PM
# Tim Converse said:

Micah, of course we want to do both. The business side says: more users, more user satisfaction, more time spent on Y!, more money for Y!.

The craftsman side says: make products better, make people happier.

The cool thing is that (in this business, anyway) they are not that much in conflict. In practice I mostly just focus on making the product better, and assume that this will mean good things for the business side. But I don't think that it's odd to pay attention to the business goals. Shareholders are not in this for my self-actualization, they want revenue and profit (quite reasonably).

on November 25, 2005 07:16 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

If we can " give the users a better time on the internet, a way to make their lives mokre productive and happier" then the other stuff will follow.

on November 25, 2005 07:20 PM
# grumpY! said:

oh yawn. search is over as an emerging technical product. the top three search sites will give 95% of what you really want, and they almost always provide the same five sites you really want in their first ten results. who is pouring venture funding into this? its a sewn up market.

to say search is over is heresy to the relevance crowd, but the point is google has incredible brand awareness in search, and its unlikely a new idea is going to overcome that. yahoo made a great stab which was timely, msn a good stab but late, previewseek, clusty....stop wasting your money. no one cares about your (supposed) 1% improvement. ever since then i have seen numerous tweaks to search in some vain hope of actually giving me better results - all lame hacks.

on November 25, 2005 11:05 PM
# TIm Converse said:

(Can I just say that I _love_ GrumpY!? That's right L-U-V love. (I'm just saying this in hopes that it makes him/her even GrumpY!er.))

And I partly agree. General websearch as a start-up play? Nope, that market is sewn up by the large companies.

But the idea that the top three companies have search nailed to the point that the top five sites you want show up in top ten ... well, that assumes the whole thing is static and won't change. In fact, though, the web doubles every N months, changes its character, new types of spam emerge, etc. So what the top three are doing is a very energetic logroll to try to keep the good results to five out of ten, fighting hard not to let it slip to four, launching research efforts to bump it up to six... And if any of them let up, they'll be down to three before you know it, and then users will leave in droves.

So it ends up being one of those things where it looks temporarily stable to the user, but there's a lot of churn under the hood, and potential instability. How much would you bet that the current 1-2-3 market share rating will be the same three years from now? I'll gladly take the other end at even odds...

on November 25, 2005 11:22 PM
# grumpY! said:

>> In fact, though, the web doubles every N months, changes its character, new types of spam emerge, etc.

i agree, you can't stop coding, but your resources at this point should be fixed. none of these companies is seeing radical revenue shifts based on search at this point.

>> How much would you bet that the current 1-2-3 market share rating will be the same three years from now?

i am claiming it more or less doesn't matter. google's market cap is being driven by adsense, not search, and this is where the new spending is taking place at the competitors.

now if one of the players should screw up or take a dumb risk, yes, that hurts monetization. so i would argue once again its simply a maintainence and engineering systems issue of staying competitive (add more boxes, fix bugs, kill spam). i don't think anyone is claiming that they actually have a theoretical basis for a huge gain in relevance. certainly none of the "hacks" i have seen have been at all game-changing.

this isn't a pessimistic view. yahoo dealt with google search as effectively as anyone could expect.

on November 26, 2005 12:13 AM
# Hashim said:

search is far from "solved". I can't search "dark web" databases or most forums. That's where all the valuable info is at!

A next gen search engine that could beat Google is one that is not stuck in the crawling the web paradigm.

on November 29, 2005 08:58 PM
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