SEM’s Seven Year Itch, Part One

First published January 11, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

There’s been a lot of speculation lately about the future of Matt Cutts. A few of Cutts’ posts and a recent interview have dropped the odd hint that the world of Google and the world of Mr. Cutts may not always be one and the same. While this is certainly noteworthy on many levels, it’s only one symptom of a much bigger issue, and one that will change the search landscape dramatically.

The fact is, those of us in the search space who have been doing it for a while (in my case, dabbling for 11 years, dedicated for eight now) are getting tired. We’re becoming burnt-out. As exciting as the ride has been since 2000, we’re beginning to realize that there is a life beyond search, or at least, the seat that we’re currently sitting in. There are a number of individual issues emerging that signal a significant change coming, and the time is now. We are succumbing to our own version of the 7-Year Itch.

A Case of Google-itis

First, let’s look at what will be happening with the engines themselves:

Google was recently recognized by Fortune as the best place in America to work. Tales of perks beyond the imagination of most poor working stiffs emerged from the Mountain View Shangri-La. Those of us who have visited the Google campus knew about a lot of these, but you could hear the rest of America’s jaw drop. Oh my God, they said collectively, what a place to work!

Well, yes… and no. The things that make Google great also make it a meat grinder. When you sign your life over at Google, you’re entering yourself in a sprint without a defined finish line, against thousands of other people determined and capable of getting there first. That’s okay when you’re young (as everyone at Google is), but at some point, life edges in on the dream. People get married, people have babies, parents age and require care. Somehow, a $500 subsidy for take-out food or on-site dry cleaning can’t make the realities of that life go away. There’s no rule saying you have to work zillions of hours at Google, but when everyone else is doing it, especially the two founders, are you the one that’s going to slow down? Either you keep racing, or you drop out. There’s little middle ground here.

And My Option is…?

Combine that with the fact that most of Google’s old guard are sitting on stock options that make them multimillionaires. Matt’s a wonderful guy and I’d like to count him as one of the friends I’ve made in the industry, but it’s got to be tough to motivate yourself everyday to put in the hours it takes to be Matt Cutts when there’s the substantial carrot of a very early and very lush retirement constantly hanging just above your head.

Matt’s not alone. That’s why one-third of the first 300 employees are no longer with Google. A story in the Houston Chronicle relates how 16 Google insiders cashed in more that $3.7 billion in stock last year (half of this coming from Larry and Sergey themselves), filling California’s tax coffers. And there’s more to come. By 2008, the state is counting on a cumulative $1 billion in state income tax from the sale of Google stock as the early guard cashes in. That represents 1% of the state’s entire annual general fund budget.

Changing of the Guard

Somehow, staying in the race becomes less compelling when the alternative is so damned attractive. It’s a testament to Google’s culture that more haven’t taken Door Number Two yet. But as the old guard moves on, that culture is shifting. Again, this is not unique to Google. Startups everywhere go through this, but few have been as successful or watched as closely as Google. A San Francisco Chronicle article looked at the shift of Google from a highly democratic family to a more conservative bureaucracy: “The feeling of ownership among employees, a natural when a company has 100 workers, was nearly impossible to maintain after the workforce grew into the thousands.”

Google’s not alone in this. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about Tim Converse’s departure from Yahoo. Yahoo has seen several move on, some voluntarily, some not, due to a series of reorgs. Yahoo is a perfect case study of the tempestuous nature of the Web. Once sitting on the top of the search heap, Yahoo has felt a series of very painful bumps on the way down. It is now reinventing itself so it can turn around its market-share slide. Yahoo is a curious mix of old guard and new saviors, as its culture becomes redefined, for different but no less effective reasons than Google.

And finally, there’s Microsoft, unique amongst the three. Being late into the search game might actually benefit the monolithic giant here. Most of the recently assembled search team still feels the motivation that comes from the promise of a new endeavor. Microsoft is in the unaccustomed position of being the startup, the new kid on the block. Their legs are still fresh.

Today, I looked at the effect of the 7-Year Itch on the engines, but the impact is also affecting hundreds of search marketing companies. Stay tuned for next week!

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