Pssst, Try My Search Engine and I’ll Give You a Turkey!

First published February 17, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

The twains have met. Back in the dark recesses of my past, I used to toil in the radio biz as a copywriter. I had thought I left that industry far behind when I started working in the search marketing game. But, zounds, suddenly the search player’s strategy is starting to sound like it was devised by Herb Tarlek (for those of you under 40, Google “WKRP in Cincinnati.”).

Search’s Turkey Bomb?

In radio, you could know instantly when you were in a ratings period by the frenetic one- upmanship of radio stations giving away trips, prizes, cash (or dropping turkeys out of a helicopter at a mall–a memorable episode of “WKRP”) in the hopes of luring listeners for those all important few weeks when the ratings were being tallied. The logic of simply offering programming that people might actually want to listen to seemed to be lost in a flurry of promotional bribery. It always struck me as a tainted sort of lunacy.

Now, here I am in the pristine world of search, where we’re above that sort of thing. Well, we were, until this week.

Both Yahoo! and MSN appear to be willing to bribe users to use their search engines. Apparently Google’s ever rising market share has pushed them to the point of desperation. With MSN’s Search and Win (http://www.msnsearchandwin.com/), a search on selected keywords could win you a gift certificate, MP3 player, digital cameras or rather substantial donation to your favorite charity. Yahoo has also polled some of its e-mail users to see if a bribe could bring them into the Yahoo search fold.

The Smell of Desperation

To me, this seems like outright capitulation to the acknowledged dominance of Google in search. Ironically, Google is currently being punished by shareholders for being a one- trick pony–but the fact is, this pony has legs. More and more people are searching, and Google is being used by most of them. Yahoo and MSN’s share has been consistently sliding, and in MSN’s case, is dangerously close to being classified as a second-tier player, while Google is pulling in about half of all Web searches.

The desperation shown by Yahoo and MSN represents their admission of the importance of search in the new online ecosystem. I recently mentioned to someone that MSN has already conceded the first round of the search game to Google. MSN has deep enough pockets that lost search advertising revenue isn’t a critical concern. While search revenue is of much more concern to Yahoo, I suspect its principals have also realized that they can’t beat Google head to head on search as it currently sits. But MSN and Yahoo are looking beyond round one to what search will become. Increasingly, search will become more integrated, personalized and verticalized. It will extend beyond the desktop and will be the primary online connector. And it’s in this evolution of search where the stakes get incredibly high. Neither MSN nor Yahoo want to concede that territory to Google, so the concept of critical mass becomes a key factor.

Critical Mass for the Tornado

As the next round of search begins and as the search experience is redefined, there has to be a large enough user base to ensure rapid adoption of new developments. We’re in the middle of Geoffrey Moore’s market adoption tornado (as described in his book Inside the Tornado : Marketing Strategies from Silicon Valley’s Cutting Edge), and delays of even a month or two can be fatal in deciding who the emerging gorilla will be. MSN and Yahoo need to build a user base that’s at least in the same neighborhood as Google. The odds of winning it all are dramatically lower if you’re beginning with a single-digit market share, no matter how great your product is. For proof, just look at the long struggle of Apple to gain dominance with its Mac line.

While I can’t fault Yahoo’s and MSN’s wisdom in recognizing they can’t continue to let their market share slide, I do question this particular strategy. Iwon.com has been trying to bribe search users with giveaways for years now, and their current market share is a paltry one half of one percent (according to recent Nielsen numbers). MSN has stated that this is just a way to get users trying MSN search. Presumably, they’ll be so impressed that they’ll keep coming back. I remain unconvinced, for reasons that I stated in last week’s column, The Search Experience has a De Facto Standard (for Now). My recommendation for Yahoo! and MSN? Work on the user interface. Tweak the relevancy of your results. Give people a reason to give up Google that’s more compelling than a chance at a Baby Gap gift certificate. I don’t think you’re there yet, and until you are, bribing might win you a pair of eyeballs for a search or two, but it won’t win the hearts and minds of new users.

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