Friday, August 1, 2008

Search Insider: Poor Cuil

Poor Cuil

POOR CUIL. (IF THE previous sentence makes no sense to you, look  here, here, or here ). Being hailed as a "Google killer" is a tough standard to live up to. And given the fanfare with which Cuil came out of beta earlier this week, it is hard to imagine they could deliver against the hype. So when they were pilloried for general systems glitches, their inability to handle launch-day traffic, and an underwhelming search experience, you had to feel sorry for them. The beating they took for some fundamentally forgivable site launch errors reflects the mad desperation within the search marketing community and those who write about it for someone, anyone, to challenge Google for query share in browser-based search. Apparently Cuil was tested and found wanting. But with such lofty expectations, were they set up to fail? Can a Google-killer even exist?


Fellow Search Insider Gord Hotchkiss provided insight into this topic several months back in a great series on habits, how we form them and how they are broken. He suggested two potential scenarios that could erode Google's dominance: fragmentation through personalization and customization, and upstream intervention, in which users are diverted to another engine before they can get to Google. The former scenario is already happening (I've written about it as well -- see, but Google is effectively countering this development by acquiring the competition (e.g. YouTube), locking up their search volume through ad distribution (e.g. MySpace) and building their own offerings (e.g. Knol ). And the later scenario, upstream intervention, has proven ineffective. Consider mobile search, for example. Wireless carriers have tried for years to control upstream access. Yet Google dominates mobile search query volume. Clearly users are circumventing upstream behavioral controls if they think they can find a better product one or two clicks away.

So what about the product? Can a company that builds a honest-to-goodness better search engine gain traction with users? It's hard to say. So far no one has out-Googled Google, so there are no test cases to draw from. In fact, this is probably where Cuil so irked its user base. Yearning for a general information search engine that could deliver on the promise of more accurate (or at least more useful) search results, Cuil didn't pass muster; its relevancy and accuracy are not up to par with any of the Tier 1 engines. But what if it was, in fact, better? How much better would it have to be in order to incent searchers to "kick the Google habit?"

Not much better, in my opinion. Thought it's in vogue today to say that no one will beat Google in a head-to-head battle in browser-based search, and the real "Google killer" will emerge from a new platform entirely, I'm not sure about that. If someone could deliver results that were only marginally better than Google's, along with a decent user interface and a catchy name, they would instantly be the darling of the search marketing community and, again, those who write about it. And since there are zero switching costs to migrate to a new search engine, a euphoric press onslaught could shift consumer behavior in favor of the newcomer. (I can see the headline now: "New Google Killer Finally Lives up to the Hype!"). And if their product really was better, they'd be in business.

But apparently building a better search engine is hard to do. Search for "Google killer" in Google (yes, it's sadistic) and the first listing is a seven-year-old article about WiseNut, a Google-killer circa 2001. Over-hyped competitors have been stalking Google for years to no avail. So don't worry, Cuil. Maybe you aren't the next Google killer. But you can take comfort in knowing you are in good company, and that we were all rooting for you to succeed.

Matt Greitzer is vice president and global discipline lead of search marketing at Avenue A | Razorfish.

Search Insider for Friday, August 1, 2008:

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