Caution Will Kill You in the Search Game

First published November 8, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

A strange thing started happening to me in the last two years or so. As I became more vocal about my opinion, people started seeking it out more often. The more I shared it, the more people nodded their heads. And the more obnoxious I got about it, the more people jumped on my own little opinion bandwagon. It you look at comments to this column as an indicator of striking chords, it seems like I touch cords either when I’m being a total dickhead (increasingly frequent) or introspective and emotionally deep (a much rarer occurrence). But other than a “right-on” post or comment, and the vigorous nodding of heads, I’m not sure it will go much further than that. Inside, we all like to be smarter than our bosses and a little bit revolutionary. But on the surface, where we live and work, we go with the flow. I call it the Cluetrain Conundrum.

The Cluetrain Manifesto was posted in 1999, when the Internet was still new and bold and gritty. Much of the initial grass-roots appeal that tweaked the interest of Messrs. Locke, Weinberger and Searles has since been paved over to make room for commercial storefronts. At the time of publishing, as an in-your-face, spit-in-your-boss’s-coffee and laugh-all-the-way-to-the-corporate-bathroom call to action against the cluelessness of the command and control establishment, it attracted its own rush of “right-ons.”. In fact, since it went online, thousands have signed the Manifesto. It seemed like the world could change. But now, eight years later, we’re still waiting.

You see, it’s one thing to say you’re ready to change. It’s another to convince the rest of the people in all the cubicles in all the offices in all the world that you’re right. You know it, and the person in the next cubicle knows it, but the chowderheads in the X-0 suites seem intent on running the company off the cliff. Why? In a word, caution.

No, Really, Tell Me what You Think…

In the last few months, I’ve been asked for my opinion on how to improve certain search properties. I think the people asking me are hoping for an answer like this: “You see all these ads you’re trying to get people to click on? Well, all you have to do is move them here and put this colored box behind them, and people will sprain a finger trying to buy from your advertisers. It’s that simple!”

Of course, it’s not. It’s understanding all the things that the Cluetrain authors were trying to get across. It’s understanding that markets are conversations, that we’re sick of advertising, that we long for authenticity and transparency, and that we can sniff insincerity and BS a mile away. It’s saying that you have to worry about users first, build up truckloads of trust, and then figure out how to make money. And that’s just not likely to happen when you already have an existing search property.

The problem is that you’re already somewhat successful. There’s existing revenue and advertisers. Generally speaking, although attrition is higher than you’d like, most of the advertisers keep coming back. And as long as they’re doing that, management won’t be very motivated to change. Because the changes required are not simple fixes. They’re stripping things down to the foundations and rebuilding for the user. And that means a lot of money, and almost certainly lost revenue in the short term, against the remote possibility of long-term gain. That’s a ton of risk, and it’s not surprising that someone in the C-level executive wing is unwilling to stake their corporate reputations on this particular roll of the dice. There’s a lot better chance you’ll go down in flames than be crowned a hero.

The Illusion that You Have a Choice

But the irony here is that while it appears you have a choice, you really don’t. Because if you don’t take this chance, someone with a lot less to lose will. And eventually, that someone else will win. They’ll win, and you’ll lose, because Web traffic is a zero-sum game. Just ask every search engine who’s not Google. So while it appears there’s way too much to lose by reinventing your business model, it’s much, much riskier not to. Because as much as you think you’re in control of your business, you’re not. The users are, and you have them now by the simple virtue of there not being a better place to go — yet. In the Internet world, there will always be a better place to go, eventually. Either you build it or someone else will.

Last month, in a hotel lobby, I was having this conversation with somebody who had asked me my opinion. I basically told him what I’m telling you today and asked him if his company had the courage to do this. He wasn’t sure, and asked how important it was. I said it depends on the competition. He was a little reassured, because their competition is even more cautious. The reassurance was short-lived when I replied, “Ah, but that’s the competition you know about. Chances are, this is going to come completely out of the blue and you won’t know what hit you.”

I suspect people are going to stop asking my opinion.

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