Marketing your Search Engine

I recently came across an interesting post by Mark Johnson, senior product manager at Powerset:

While demoing Live Search at the Web 2.0 Expo, people continually asked the same questions: “What makes Live different?” or “Show me some features that will make me want to switch from my search engine” or the extremely confrontational “Why do you think you’re better than Google?”

If only I had a dollar for every time someone asked me one of these questions when demo-ing Zook (my company’s Mobile search engine) …I would have been richer by at least a couple of hundred dollars!

How do you convinve someone that your search engine is better than Google? How do you convince someone that Google is not the do-all and be-all of search engines? Don’t get me wrong, I love Google. But I do resent the fact that, with their enormous market share, Google has moulded an expectation of what a search engine is and is not into people’s minds; so much so that if even Google itself introduced anything drastically different, it would probably get rejected! How do you convince someone of something when they are already convinced of the contrary? If you run a Web search engine, Mark Johnson offers some advice:

So, after awhile, I started my demos with a caveat about the nature of a search engine: I implored my audience to try out Live Search for a week so that, in the words of the immortal Lavar Burton of Reading Rainbow, “But, you don’t have to take my word for it.”

This is a great tactic if you are a generic Web search engine. But if you are a more specialised search engine which has been built to answer only a subset of the queries that people go to Google for — but answer them much better than Google does — you are out of luck: people are not too keen on juggling between different search engines for different needs; they want a single box into which they would like to type in a query and get the results. So what is the recourse?

If you have Deep Web content — data that others (read as: Google) do not have access to — you are through. Can there be anything sweeter than a monopoly? This is usually achieved by search engines that own the data they are searching. Usually, most of this data is inaccessible to the regular search engines. Several local search engines are this way. YouTube, the second largest search engine in US, also falls in this category. As do Amazon and eBay and Craigslist. But with the increasing domination of Google and its growing importance in driving traffic, many of these websites are resorting to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques resulting in large portions of their content being made available to be indexed by Google.

If you are a vertical search engine, you can entice people with features that go well beyond mere listing of results. These features can include things like sorting (example: sort by price in product search), actionable results (example: book tickets in movie search), faceted search (example: narrow down by brands in product search — useful for cameras, laptops etc.), community inputs (example: user reviews & ratings in restaurant search) and so on. Often, several such perks are needed to get people to try out your search engine long enough for them to really experience it.

But if you are a drastically different search engine trying to bring in a whole new paradigm of search, you are facing a real tough battle. Wolfram|Alpha learned it the hard way after its recent launch. Powerset faced similar hurdles when trying to convince people of they are worthy of attention. Several other such attempts have been made but none too successfully.

Developing a brand new search engine in this Google-dominated world is no more just about coming up with great technical ideas. The technical superiorities need to be market driven. The ideas need to come from a marketing perspective. This does not imply that there is any less scope for leaps of technical improvements, it just means that without a marketing plan to go with them, such improvements will find themselves in obscurity in a hurry.

We came to this realisation at Zook a long time ago. When we did, and started developing our marketing strategy, it was mere good fortune that we found that most of our development until that time would align quite well with the strategy. We were lucky.

We like to think of Zook as a lateral search engine i.e. we specialise in some kinds of content unlike a horizontal search engine (most Web search engines) but unlike most vertical search engines we pan across several verticals without going too deep into any one of them. Being this way, we are able to offer several of the features/benefits that are normally the privilege only of vertical search engines — actionable results (examples: buy/download a song, reserve a table at a restaurant, subscribe to alerts), faceted search (examples: restaurant bangalore, ringtones, movies) etc.

Another thing we have going for Zook is that people seem to be more open to trying out alternative search engines on their mobile than they are on their desktops; Google deosn’t yet have a stranglehold on mobile internet users. In most cases, the promise of “exact/precise information instead of a set of links that you have navigate yourself to find the information” gets people excited enough that they are willing to Zook a try.

Zook has a lot of Deep Web content that we source directly from the multitude of our partners. That helps too :).

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One Comment

  1. Posted January 17, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Keep up the good work. Best of luck.

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