The Bold and the Beta: Two Approaches to Search Innovation

First published March 16, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

As search innovation rolls out to the user, the beta release has been a tried and true way of testing the waters. Currently, there are dozens of different flavors of search in beta, including a significant portion of Google usability. Beta releases were originally a quality assurance exercise, allowing real users to identify bugs in a new product.

Today, the advantage of beta in search is that it’s a relatively low-risk way to test the appeal of new search functionality and interfaces with real users. Beta release is to technology as a test market is to advertising. A beta interface can be thrown up without impacting the main site, which continues to produce the bread and butter revenue. The hope is, of course, that word of the beta will spread virally through the Internet, and the developer finds its beta release turn into the next big thing online. You pretest with users, find you have a home run, and when the time is right, you throw the switch, incorporating some or all of the new technology into your mainstream product.

The beginning of Google was a classic study in how a beta release can introduce a hot new upstart. Google was in beta forever, and had attracted a significant chunk of the search market before it ever was officially released. Use of Google spread virally like wildfire through the academic and journalist communities, eventually cracking the mainstream as the word spread. The beta campaign worked like a charm, and by the time Google was mainstream, it had so much momentum it never looked back.

Since then, every search player has thrown new technology up as a beta, to see what sticks, and hopefully, takes off to become the next flavor of Google. Notable beta candidates currently are Google’s Froogle (another perennial beta release) and Video Search, Microsoft’s Windows Live Search and Yahoo’s Mindset. Each hopes that it will be the next big thing. Given the stakes that are up for grabs in search, I’m not sure beta release is the best way to get the next big win. Here are some reasons why:

Beta Users Are Early Adopters

The beta user is not your typical animal. They tend to be more risk tolerantĀ  and patient with bugs, and are the early adopters. This audience works well if your beta release objectives are bug tracking, but not so well if you’re trying to gauge a potential market buster.

Search is now mainstream; it’s crossed the chasm. The classic Google success story took place when search was still in the domain of the early adopter. Today, to gain market share, you have to introduce technology that appeals to everyone. I tend to be an early adopter. My wife is a classic online pragmatist. I’ll fool around with new technology, and I think some of the stuff in beta is pretty cool. But it’s not my loyalty you have to win, it’s my wife’s, and she doesn’t even know Google Labs exists, let alone is willing to take the brainchild of a Google engineer for a test drive. If you’re using beta users to pretest market potential, you’re probably getting the wrong feedback.

The Competition Can Peek Under Your Kimono

Search is a hot space now. In the original days of Google, search had the advantage of not being under the microscope, so a beta release of a new engine had a chance to build up some user momentum before it was attacked and reverse engineered by the competition. In Google’s case, not only was it not reverse engineered, but Page and Brin couldn’t even sell the technology to the competition. The same is not true today. Literally weeks or days are all it seems to take before the competition jumps on a new development and introduces its own version. As an example, Windows Live Search has its own version of Google Earth satellite imagery built into the interface.

When you’re penetrating a mainstream market, every day you can hold an advantage over the competition is significant. The longer something remains in beta before it becomes a significant advantage to your main user base, the longer your competition has to even the playing field.

There’s Too Much Beta And Too Little Innovation

A beta product will only become a blockbuster if it significantly ups the ante in terms of just plain coolness or usability. Today, everything gets thrown in beta, and, in many cases, there’s just not enough motivation to cause even early adopters to give it a second look. We’re being inundated with new beta releases and I personally can’t keep up. The chance of one of these spinning enough momentum to gain market share is infinitesimal at best. There’s very little that’s really buzz-worthy right now. The last thing I saw that was pretty cool in new search interfaces was Yahoo’s Mindset, but that’s generated virtually no attention even in the search biz. After taking Windows Live Search for a test drive, I found it reasonably buzz-worthy as well, but time will tell if it will gain much attention in its beta release.

It’s Time For Boldness, Not Beta

This might not be the time to play it safe in the search biz. It’s time for locked doors and midnight brainstorming, huge leaps forward and blow-your-socks-off functionality. It’s time for monumental, not incremental, improvements. Spoon feeding us innovation through never-ending beta releases might not be the way to go. The irony is that now, when there’s significant dollars at stake and risk is greatest, the only way to win might be to take that risk head-on and gamble big.

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