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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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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Bing: Can a "Popular" Search Engine Become Popular?

"Go to Bing. Try this?!," I said.

Carolyn and I were in the middle of watching Blue Jays highlights; me, fresh back from the Microsoft Canada demo of the Bing search engine. Her, an intelligent Ph.D. who somewhat knows her way around the Apple OS, fruitlessly trying to use Google to get the answer to a baseball trivia question we were pondering. If Roy Halladay had 14 strikeouts in last night's game in his masterful, complete-game win over the Angels, what's the rundown on the most strikeouts he's ever had in a game?

"Bing! dot com," I burbled, helpfully.

"What?," she "replied." No response yet. Apparently "Go to Bing" does not yet resonate as a domestic communique.

I never do this.

"Bing! Really -- try it at Bing.com this time. Type 'Roy Halladay shutouts single game' or whatnot." (We search experts try not to give more precise directions. It makes normal people feel uncomfortable.)

I've seen many demos (by Microsoft, even). But rarely do I do just like the people in Microsoft focus groups did: notice a difference with the engine's usability, and recommend it to someone.

We didn't find the stat quickly.

Then I remembered that the Bing engine has been tuned to offer more orchestrated consumer-friendly results pages when you type in "Roy Halladay" without any qualifiers.

Sure enough, Carolyn saw a pretty useful Roy Halladay search result full of photos, stats, and search refinements... just one notch short of a Roy Halladay shrine.

We try a similar search for "Scott Rolen". A similar result ensued. Carolyn remarked that the page came complete with a "nice BIG picture" of Scott Rolen. It's at moments like these that it hits me out of the blue: women do like men, and will occasionally admit it even in your presence. Then again, it was just a bad head shot. Perhaps she meant he had a fat head in that shot. That's pretty much my take on it, anyway. Kidding, Scott! Love the Gold Glove play out there! Keep it up! Whew, didn't want to alienate that guy.

The top "related query" in the left navigation was Scott Rolen wife. Being a curious sort, and a man, I thought I'd love to know why. I still don't know. The query results lead to some pretty generic looking Ten Blue Links. Undaunted, I tried the image search for the Scott Rolen wife query. Things break down a bit from here: Bing's image search is as unhelpful as Google's often is. The top photos are all of the ballplayer, other ballplayers, managers, shots of dirt, etc. The highest ranking woman pictured is of an Asian bible college student who is not Scott Rolen's wife. I don't ask. In any case, the page is now down.

Wow, search is distracting.

I look over at Carolyn, who seems to be talking. She's talking about how she likes the layout of the search engine, remarking on how useful it would probably be - I coach her a bit to reinforce the idea that it will pull up better pages for these popular queries. She reacts pretty well, contrary to the usual reaction you see to a demo. Basically - she doesn't hate it. And had a few good comments.

This home focus group would have probably produced positive feedback clips on a par with those Microsoft showed us in the demo, of the average cafe or office users giving their take on whether they found it useful: the dainty twenty-something with tattoo-covered arms; the office manager who doesn't like to "re-work" when he's searching for a hard-to-find stat like "World's Best Rapper,"; the affable round-faced chap who "never gives up" when he does his goal-directed searches for things like "nightlife when he's in Italy," but would rather get to what he's searching for faster.

Microsoft's research is impeccable. According to Stacey Jarvis, search lead for Microsoft Canada, a high number of search queries simply do not deliver successful results. She noted, metaphorically if nothing else (since it probably isn't competing with the Print button), "the back button is the most frequently used button in search." So search still sucks? Well, it's definitely unsatisfying a lot of the time. But luckily not quite to the point where users won't keep trying.

Also germane to all of the above users, and you, and me: about 50% of queries are about returning to previous tasks. So we need to get to information more quickly.

One evocative persona was a woman who took 27 minutes and had to retry her search five times to find a retailer for the Merrell shoes she was looking for. You think that sounds painful? That's a US example. In Canada, stock is much spottier and domestic e-commerce players are often harder to find and harder to shop from.

The "managed" results on broad, popular queries I alluded to above are called Best Match. If you type Toronto Blue Jays, you get a schedule, a Wikipedia entry, news, and other "most useful" items... every time.

For search optimizers, this should be a continuation of the trend set in motion years ago by all the search engines. If the door was slowly closing on the opportunity for "just any website with the right SEO strategy" to rank well on broad queries, does this slam it shut? Good for consumers, bad for SEO's? Forget ranking on head terms, folks.

Freshness is a big part of the rolling mandate here. The Toronto Blue Jays result page also shows a current box score with the annoying news that it's 3-0 Angels in the third inning. Whoops, 4-0. Let's hope Casey Janssen settles down: he's got Halladay caliber composure and stuff... minus the extra heat since his injury.














Other useful real-time features are being dutifully built into Bing.

Type "Flight Status" and you get a handy app to look at your flight's status. A bit of inside baseball came up at the demo: Mark Evans asked "Is that part of Farecast you're integrating?" and Travel Ninja Stuart MacDonald interrupted from the crowd to say: "Flightstats isn't Farecast." Apparently, Farecast integration is down the road, if that means anything to you.

Yes! Matthews jr. struck out. Oh no! Janssen hit a guy with a pitch.

Back to this.

Microsoft - and others - are good at researching pain points and they're good at building features. Information retrieval is complex, though. And users are using one main technique to find answers: typing short or long queries into search engines. Repeating queries, trying different results. That's the case on Google as much as it is on Bing.

Bing is following, using more sophisticated technology and database integration, the spirit of the old Ask Jeeves answer engine or the recent thoughts behind Mahalo. Figure out how to be reasonably close to the right intent on the most popular 80% of queries.

For hard-to-find information, it may well be the quality of the underlying results that blocks us from getting there, so is it really up to a search engine to fix that? Well, certainly Wolfram Alpha is trying to get us answers to very specific queries like "what are the highest single-game strikeout totals for Roy Halladay?"

We got to the answer easily in this case only because the headlines told us that Halladay's 14 K's was a personal best. Search engines don't always make it easy to get specialized information.

That just underscores the point of Microsoft's research: many search journeys today still end in frustration. The fact that Microsoft's response will leave some users pleased, and others most certainly frustrated, still seems like progress. The new buzz in the industry being generated by the likes of Bing and Wolfram Alpha is good for consumers, even if they all still offer only very partial solutions to the problem of finding exactly what we "want."

So if Bing's flavor is to do well on popular queries with an unsophisticated "mass" audience, does it follow that it will gain in popularity, backed by an $80mm advertising campaign? When specifically asked, Stacey Jarvis was candid that Microsoft's current search share in Canada is 4.9%. But no one at the company is willing to stand behind any boasts about concepts like "switching search engines," market share, and (with some exceptions, like in the focus group videos) "Gooogle." They're united behind what is evidently a very good product that can improve more with refinement. And quite rightly, daring to predict widespread consumer adoption of Bing isn't in the Microsoft script at the moment. Do they have a plan here, or just a solid product?

It's now 5-0 Angels, with the Jays still hitless. But I probably won't watch the rest of the game on a search engine. It's off to the gym, where I hope Dr. Phil isn't showing on the TV's.

Note: Stacey Jarvis, Search Lead for Microsoft Canada, will speak on the Orion Panel on the Future of Search at SES Toronto, next Monday, June 8.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Sunday, May 31, 2009

Amid Bing Hype, Blekko Wants To Be Left Alone

Blekko, a stealth search startup headed by Rich Skrenta, is doing its best Greta Garbo impersonation while getting this sort of "glowing non-coverage" over at Techcrunch.

Like them, I respect the reclusive starlet (sorry, startup's) interest in privacy while they develop the product and the strategy.

In the next couple of weeks I will finally have the time to demo both Bing and Blekko.

But perhaps I can "leak" a couple of ideas I've gleaned from the past year or so of sporadic conversations with Rich.
  • You don't need the blogosphere to tell you, they're pretty serious about this one, and their idea of A-Level Talent doesn't just mean product managers with search engine names attached to their resumes, or business development folks with same. Along with those, they seem particularly focused on attracting high end engineering talent. You'd have guessed that anyway if you looked at the investors who have seeded the company, such as Marc Andreessen (to say nothing of Skrenta himself).
  • Although Screenwork reports they're "happy with the name Blekko," if you were a stealth startup, wouldn't you say that? They'll probably change it.
  • While not speaking directly to Blekko's own functionality, I've found Skrenta's (perhaps offhand) criticisms of search engine innovation in the past couple of years to be very telling. Skrenta told me last summer that users don't really want all these stage-managed "blended" results nearly as much as the major search engines let on. He's also been quoted as saying that PageRank wrecked the web, and implying that Google is out of answers when they begin threatening people with penalties and begging them to use web conventions in the "right way," instead of fixing their algorithms. Let's explore a bit more where these thoughts lead us... Bing may be a quintessential example, but Ask, Cuill, and the major search engines themselves (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft) have all been engaged in an overwrought effort to display search engine results in panes; variegated search results that purportedly guess at 'intent' (sometimes they do a great job); and other bells and whistles that speak to a broadening of the terms of what constitutes 'search' to convince us that search engines need to be good at finding, classifying, ranking, and displaying all 'objects', not just pages of information. "Ten Blue Links" has rapidly become code for "obsolete search engine design". "A page with panes and pics" is code for what "users really want today". Supposedly. Unfortunately, this leaves a gaping hole in what search engines used to do, or try to do: to be really good at providing relevant results for specialized queries, and getting the rank-order right. The fact that you get a bunch of panes and distractions instead of a really relevant list of links to serious content may be seen as some kind of evidence that search engines have given up on their core mission, and are engaged in a massive attempt to change the subject, whether consciously or not. And this kind of overwrought "integrative thinking" has apparently begun to pervade these companies' thought processes on other products. In terms of workflow and productivity, users shouldn't be satisfied with steady efforts to improve upon GMail functionality, integrated calendars, and IM integration (plus a to-do list that is a bland and clunky offering at best)? Instead of perfecting the core functionality, let's change the subject, and invent a new tool that assumes people want to share data and shift modes of communication willy-nilly. Google Sea of Distractions, as it were.
In that spirit, then, will Blekko turn out to be one part Kicking it Old School (no pretty panes, but going back to the fundamentals of serious searches for the right information, and rank-ordering serious results well, in a way that does a better job of keeping spam out without over-rewarding a handful of brands?), and one part Kicking it Up a Notch (soft-innovating in the information retrieval field, and leaving the portal guys to pretty up the planet with panes and pics)? Let's hope so. That would be one of the most noteworthy entry into the "serious consumer" web search space in the past five years. It might even turn out to be the type of search engine a librarian could love again. I'm looking forward to a deep dive... and launch later this year. As the other analysts have implied, maybe this won't be for everyone. What great product is? But the appeal also has to be wide enough to matter, and I hope that's true, too.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Monday, May 25, 2009

Will Microsoft's Search Ad Campaign Work? (Groundhog Day... All Over Again)

So via AdAge, we're told that Microsoft is readying an $80mm+ advertising campaign, and that it will promote yet another brand of their search technology, this time, called Bing?

Further to Cory's piece about potential reasons for consumers to switch to Yahoo Search, now we have evidence that Microsoft plans to put not only persuasion, but money, into the "getting people to switch" effort.

What a shame, though, that these two companies don't get serious about working together to achieve that goal.

We can only be excited about the potential for Microsoft to create better technology in the space. Competition is good. But it's already a concern when the story is shaping up to be more about the promo of the alternative to Google, as opposed to the technology it actually offers. That's certainly been the case with the various lavish Ask campaigns (and I still won't forget when their PR people wanted me to write about the "significance of getting rid of the butler," as they saw it), and we all know that all that money didn't move the needle on market share.

The premise is that search technology doesn't matter all that much, and that brand does: you put a Google skin on other people's search, and consumers still prefer the Google. Sure, but how did Google build that brand? Through innovation, focus, and technology... not advertising. And by keeping the *same* brand for ten years. I don't think consumers are going to be compelled by the "meta-story" of how Microsoft is (again) spending a lot of money to make (another) stab at the search space.

Microsoft and Yahoo are already working together on some cross-promotion efforts. But the $80mm standalone campaign for the Bing technology seems to work at cross-purposes with that.

With one major search engine (Yahoo, say) benefitting from the largesse of toolbar love from 96% of browser share (IE, Firefox, + Safari, say), a real alternative could be created organically out of how consumers already behave, and how they already think about online brands.

So rather than waste breath casting aspersions on the potential cash sinkhole that could be opened trying to build the Bing brand, I'll vote again for the only major brand alternative to Google that makes economic and emotional sense to a wide cross-section of consumers: Yahoo.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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