To Google’s Competitors: Please, This Year, Do Something Amazing!

First published January 8, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

A month ago yesterday, I was on stage in Park City, Utah at the Search Insider Summit with Danny Sullivan, Jeff Pruitt (SEMPO President/iCrossing) and John Tawadros (iProspect) talking about Google’s domination of the search space. Both Danny and I took Microsoft and Yahoo to task for not mounting a more significant challenge to Google’s dominance. It could be my imagination, but it seemed that for the rest of the Summit, I felt a bit of a chill in the air between myself and the Yahoo and Microsoft reps that ventured to Park City. I suspect the feeling was that as the emcee and moderator, I should have been less opinionated and more neutral. Fair enough, I guess, considering the root of the word moderator. But, with my first column of the new year, I felt I should clear the air a little bit.

I Like You, I Really Like You…

Really, Microsoft and Yahoo, I don’t hate you. You frustrate the hell out of me, but I certainly don’t hate you. I root for you constantly. I’ve always been an “underdog” kind of guy. Anything I mentioned on stage in Park City I’ve said directly to your respective development teams in Sunnyvale (Yahoo) and Redmond (Microsoft). I’ll tell anyone that listens. Ad nauseam, so I’ve been told. In a recent post, Danny Sullivan called it tough love. Danny and I have talked about this and we both really, really want you to succeed. But as much as I’ve tried to give helpful advice, the right people don’t seem to be listening.

Here’s the thing. I love search. I love its potential. I love the way it makes me more functional and sound smarter and better informed. Yet I know we’ve barely scratched the surface. There is so much more to come, but we need to get there as fast as possible. The only way to do that is to have a more competitive market. Google needs to have someone constantly breathing down its neck. The current market domination isn’t good for anyone, especially not the user. I suspect the engineers (not the bean counters) at Google even feel the same way. We need an arms race in search. Right now, it’s like the U.S. taking on Canada and Iceland (as a Canadian, I can say that). So when I say pull up your socks and take search seriously, I mean it with love.

Bottom Up is the Way to Go

In Danny’s post, he nicely outlines the symptoms of malaise at Microsoft. And lord knows everyone and their dog has been piling on the bash-Yahoo bandwagon in the last few months, so I won’t go there. The problem, as I see it, is that there’s a gap a mile wide between the top and bottom in both organizations. The result is a dysfunctional culture. The front lines at both organizations desperately want to do something significant in search, but they’re hamstrung by a lack of clear strategic focus from the top. Microsoft is locked in a product development mindset that squeezes anything amazing out before it can even make it to beta. Yahoo is trying to walk an impossible tight rope, tweaking the user experience while at the same time squeezing as much money as possible out of the search page.

To do something amazing in search, both organizations have to start at the foundation, the user, and rebuild from the ground up. What I would like to see is an approach taken by Intel and Apple in the past, leapfrog development. Let one team work on tweaking the existing product, and lock another team away somewhere to reinvent the future. Throw the rule book away and start over. Take your brightest rebels, remove them from the distractions of mind-numbing bureaucracy and panicked financial analyst reports, and let them do what they long to do: beat Google. Let them do something amazing.

Let People Be Amazing, Then Keep Your Hands Off

But please, if someone at Microsoft or Yahoo is listening, don’t make the same mistake GM did with Saturn. The launch of Saturn in 1983 redefined how a North American car company could be. Many of the legacy issues that plagued GM (confrontational union relationships, overly complacent dealer networks, quality control issues) were left behind with Saturn, creating an exceptional degree of loyalty and pride of ownership. In fact, Saturn became so successful that GM just couldn’t keep its hands off it, gradually bringing Saturn more and more into the GM corporate fold and, in the process, squeezing much of the life out of the brand.

Amazing things wither and die in an atmosphere of corporate bureaucracy, visionless management and political infighting. Search is too important and too vibrant to leave it to this fate. Let 2009 be the year to do something remarkable.

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