Don’t compete with Google where it is strong

Many start-ups are trying to usurp Google, over 1,000 in fact. In my view, most of them are likely to fail, because they don’t really add that much value. Here is why I think that.

Google (and live.com and Yahoo! Search, and ask.com) all fundamentally answer the same question a user has: “Where can I find…” This is very important. With Google, you fundamentally ask the question of “show me the most relevant websites where I can find the following keywords”. The vast majority of search start-ups out there do the same thing, to answer where you can find information. They just try to do it better. Frankly speaking, this is a lost battle. In order to take any significant market share, you would have to do significantly better than Google. That is a very hard thing to do. So, why bother?

I think a much better way of looking at this space is not to address the where question, but a different one. For example: “How do I…” Here, the user doesn’t want to know where to find information on a keyword, but wants an answer to a specific question. For example how to file a tax return. There is one company in this space that is doing well, it is called Mahalo. Jason Calacanis at Mahalo seems sometimes amazed about how much traffic the ‘how to’ pages at Mahalo get. To me, this makes a lot of sense. Human editors are very good at processing slow-moving content where insight is required. ‘How to’ matches that very nicely. Even I started using Mahalo for ‘how to’ questions, it actually works quite well. Have a look at the compete stats to see how much traffic they get overall.

Mahalo

I think there are many other questions search engines can answer. For example, you could ask “How good is X”. For example, I am convinced a review aggregation search engine would do extremely well. I cannot remember how many times I have typed in the name of a product and ‘review’ just to get to all the crap sites out there that list where I can buy stuff, when all I want is to see all the reviews on a product, regardless of where they originate from. How hard can it be to aggregate reviews from some 1,000 leading sites and to display that on a central site with back-links to the original sites? Some start-ups like testseek reevoo or buzzillions are going in this direction, but I think they don’t go far enough.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the “What is…?” question. That has been covered by Wikipedia. Very difficult to compete with that.

I am sure there are many other examples out there that can work. In my mind, when you try to build a new search engine, don’t ask yourself how you can make the where answer better, rather ask what other questions would be really valuable that Google cannot answer.

The best way to compete is to not compete. Particularly not with companies like Microsoft or Google.

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Good Way to Launch Beta Product

searchmeOne of the aspects of launching a software product is how to manage the transition from alpha to closed beta to open beta to beyond beta. Many companies seem to get this wrong.

For example, I frequently see that a company gets extensive TechCrunch coverage when they ‘launch’ their private beta. When I go to the homepage, all I get to see is ‘launching soon’, sign up for the closed beta. At that point, my personal relationship with that company has already hit a low point. What good is it to ‘launch’ a product like that? Besides, I am sorry to say, but you don’t ‘launch’ a product into a private beta. Launch implies it is launched to the public. Why waste PR in this way? Why make the users unhappy before they have even seen what you do?

I have recently come across a well executed beta launch. The company that did it was SearchMe, an Internet search company.

Here is what they did. I saw them on TechCrunch, where they got positive coverage. I then went to their homepage. On the homepage, there were several teaser videos of what the SearchMe search engine was doing. They were very well done videos and they streamed fast. This was clever. It educated me about the product before I got to even see it. I then signed up for the open beta by providing my email address. This is also clever. They managed to get my email address (presumable so they continue to contact me in the future, aka benevolent spam) before I even started using the service.

I got invited into the open beta exactly (I am not kidding) seven days after signing up. Here is what the email looked like:

beta

 

There are many things that are very clever about this email. For example, first, they emailed the invitation out not immediately, but with exactly a week’s delay. They made me wait. Then they made me feel special about getting in (Woo-Hoo!). Then they forewarned me: this is a beta, there will be problems. Essentially they remind me of the limitations of the system. Then they mention the feedback and support email addresses at least three times in the email. Only after I have looked at all of that, am I allowed onto the website.

Then, on the website, they ask me many more questions about me (they didn’t first time round) to complete the registration process. Now I am keen to get in, so I fill all these boxes in (well, actually I did it because I thought they had done well so far).

Only then do I start using the service. Again, next to the search engine is a box that says: this is a beta, it will be buggy, please click here to email us with feedback. I actually used the service, thought about the limitations, and gave them candid feedback.

Regardless of what I think about the product, this was a well executed beta launch. Let’s list these steps:

  • Whole product ready for public beta testing
  • Website up and running with teaser/explanation videos
  • Simple sign-up system in place
  • PR coverage that drives traffic to sign-up page
  • Signing up of beta tester
  • Let beta tester in automatically one week later – this guarantees that users use it on the same day and at the same time – both of which I guess is convenient to them – but it results in a feeling of scarcity and feeling special to be allowed in, but it is close enough to the sign-up date so that people don’t loose interest
  • Invitation email that details:
    • Explanation of limitations
    • Email addresses of support and feedback
    • Link to login
  • Login that asks optional additional questions
  • Beta product access
  • Constant reminder and request to leave feedback via ‘click here’

They can now track me and my usage by cohort. I have no doubts that they will contact me again, probably in exactly four weeks time, to let me know of developments and to keep me using the service. They even have an unsubscribe button in place in the first email, giving me the opportunity to opt out of the service any time. Good stuff. I wish all products were beta released like that.

Do you have any additional suggestions on how to best release a beta product?

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