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Monday, March 29, 2010

Yusuf Mehdi's Too-Candid Comments About Abandoning the Long Tail

Credit Yusuf Mehdi for honesty: in his remarks at SES New York last week, as reported by eWeek, he noted that Microsoft fell well behind Google in search because it focused on doing well for popular queries, when it should have known that search is "all about the long tail."

It is bizarre, because every notable failure in search since 1994 has basically been in the realm of curated results and chances are, that trend will continue. Whether they're hand-edited search results or partially "produced" variations of web index search focusing on improving the treatment of head terms using the efforts of channel producers, the market kept coming back with the same response: this approach doesn't scale. A website with opinions about what people should focus on is not a search engine, it's just a website. And that creates a serious positioning problem when you're competing in the "search engine" space, which needs to scale to help people find hard-to-find information. Forget the long tail: channel producers and editors even do a poor job of producing information around the "torso". As information and customer demands evolve, it becomes difficult to keep up, and many of the real world uses of the search engine begin to look like a "demo" of "well, this is how it works over here, on this query, in theory, and eventually we'll get back to extending the technology so it works for the stuff you're looking for, with partners who provide information in a way that you prefer, which changed in the past year."

Here's a list of some of the search engines that haven't caught on precisely because they failed to understand and gear up for the massive scale required in the search engine business, focusing instead on curating results for a limited set of popular queries or categories:

  • Yahoo Directory
  • Open Directory
  • LookSmart
  • Ask Jeeves
  • Mahalo
The list could probably be much longer.

Others have fared a bit better because they didn't claim to be search engines. These include:
  • About.com
  • Squidoo
Obviously, many of these properties are of limited use in the real world of finding info.

The bizarreness doesn't stop there, however. A significant aspect of the PR rollout of Bing was focused on the fact that Microsoft knew it would be most effective -- again -- at doing better for users in the realm of more popular types of searches, ceding long tail excellence to Google. In terms of positioning, that's like saying Microsoft is good at negotiating partnerships, designing interfaces, and subscribing to web services. That's like saying Microsoft is building a portal. That's like saying Microsoft is Yahoo.

Google itself is no saint when it comes to long tail accomplishments and relevance. On many counts, all search engine companies have waved white flags on truly scaling to address all potential content, because there is just too much of it (and too much spam). Dialing back on the ambitions of comprehensiveness, to devote more screen real estate to trusted brands and search experiences that are tantamount to paid inclusion, is Google's current trend, much as it was for companies like Inktomi and Yahoo in the past.

The industry consensus is that search is far from solved. But a prerequisite to solving any problem is trying. Microsoft is signaling that they will continue to dip a toe in the water and essentially "wimp out" when it comes to addressing scale and complexity issues. This is in line with what they've done all along, and the positioning for Bing. The question is: if Google's wimping out too, wouldn't you rather use the relatively less wimpy search company that has committed a massive budget to R&D, probably 30X Microsoft's? By sending these signals, Microsoft is not exactly giving users good reasons to use their products. It's reminiscent of the trajectory taken by companies like AOL and Yahoo, who didn't feel that search was a problem that could or should be solved by them, so they contented themselves with staying hands-off and creating a workable project largely driven by feeds, partnerships, and ideas external to their own company.

To SEO's, Mehdi's ruminations on the long tail must be heartening. It says, in essence, "spam away."

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