Thoughts on Search

I have always kept up with search technology and sites on the internet, it’s what I have always thought of as the backbone to the internet. When I was working as a venture capitalist I dove deep into search. It was our firms idea that search was a hot space that was only going to expand. I think I saw and talked with almost every search company out there in 2004-2005 and nothing ever really blew my socks off except for one company in the Netherlands which we got to a term sheet with, but could never closed due to what I would call cultural differences in investment philosophy, style and expectations. Everyone is still buzzing about the Microsoft – Yahoo search deal, I say, great, means some guaranteed revenue for Yahoo and Microsoft gets more market share. Frankly I think it was a dumb move by Yahoo; done more by CEO who had to show she was going to do something. I call it investor management. In the end Yahoo will pay and Microsoft is laughing all the way to the bank and market share. Yahoo gave up its roots, it basically invented search, it was not even called that, it was termed in the early years a “internet phone book”. Now Facebook and Twitter are moving into the area. In Facebook’s case, if you have by some estimates to have north of 20% of internet traffic, you’re going to have an opportunity to cash in on search somehow. Twitter is moving into that area as well and has some big opportunities.

Search really is the backbone to the internet, no two ways about it, you either own that backbone or rent a solution. If you rent it you’re not that strong if that is what your business relies on. I am not saying Yahoo will fail, at the end of they day I think they are now more a media company then search, but being a media company has some problems if you do not have the traffic or audience in the first place. What’s their fate? Well, I worked at AOL, everyone said we were a media company and we liked that, it was cool. Truth is we were a connectivity service, i.e. dial up access provider. That is where we made our money, honestly, we printed money from the dial up service. Why? Simple, we owned the backbone. Once we tried to get into the broadband business we were dead. Why? Because we had to rent the backbone. While we had a media business which had nice margins that was only facilitated because we had the dial up service and the customers used our “net gateway”, ie our browser, where we provided media and sold those ads. Where is AOL now that it’s dial up business is all but dead; they are a “media company”. Nice margins, but you still need traffic and their traffic left with the death of their backbone. Many of us saw it coming, some of us left early, some people rode out the harvest while it lasted. Will they survive, sure, but it will be a much smaller business. So where is this rant going, well, think of what happened to AOL when you think what might happen to Yahoo. If they lose search will people still go there or use their “media”? Or will they simply go to Bing who not only has the search but is also adding the media to surround it. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Now back to search. I still find it amazing that while Google and now Bing are decent at finding information on internet sites, they still stink at finding the best sites for different categories. The technology driving search today has become complex and while it has improved our ability to find a board selection of sites and information when you know specifically what you are looking for, it has also become in many ways very complex, returning too many irrelevant unusable results and not allowing us to distinguish which sites are truly relevant for what we are looking.

Search results are also corrupted by the hundreds of online marketing agencies out there or tricky programmers who help companies trick the spiders that crawl websites by tweaking their site code and creating dummy sites with page links into thinking a site is the best or the most relevant when, in fact, it might be neither. This is helpful to the companies who want you to find them just to get traffic, but not helpful if what they offer is not what you are looking. Tricking you just wastes time and causes frustration.

Now let’s look at review sites that make recommendations that leverage a huge audience to make the recommendations. The main problem with all these types of sites, whether it’s reading a review of a book or other product on Amazon, a review of a stereo on eOpinions, reading a message board on a recommendation of a site to check out or any such site with recommendations, is that you generally have no idea what the person’s background giving the review is or the relationship to the product, company or site that is being reviewed. This leaves users guessing if the review is real or not which makes the whole review itself unusable. I was reading an article in the New York Times this past weekend which simply reaffirmed the whole idea of gaming review sites. The founder of the company in the article get a lot of negative feedback on the net because of some of the shady things he does. He responds in the article by saying its no big deal, he hires a firm to go out and write positive reviews. Imagine how wide spread this really is and think twice before trusting a review you read.

Now not all search engines are evil and search engines like Bing and Google are great if you actually know you are looking for, such as Dominos Pizza(s) in Baltimore, MD. But, let’s say you are looking for the “best” auction sites on the internet for used cars. If you type in the term “auction” into Google you get (at the time of this writing) 222,000,000 results. How in the world are you going to know which are the best auction sites? The point here is that search engines do not always recommend the “best” sites, they recommend the ones that are optimized the best to come up in search engines.

I find it fascinating that to this day I find the “best” most “useful” sites coming not from search engines, but from a recommendation of a friend or colleague who has become an expert on some subject or I read an article from an expert on a given subject. That usually means that person is either passionate about a subject and dove deep into it and truly knows what the best most useful sites are or might have recently had an experience where they needed to find a good site for a subject and did the research and found that site(s).

So where does this leave us/me?

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