Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Don Dodge on Altavista and the search war

Don Dodge, former Director of Engineering at Altavista, posts some interesting thoughts on why AltaVista failed and the current battle between Google and MSN.

First, some excerpts on AltaVista:
The AltaVista experience is sad to remember. We should have been the "Google" of today. We were pure search, no frills, no consumer portal crap.

DEC is guilty of neglect in its handling of AltaVista. Compaq put a bunch of PC guys in charge who relied on McKinsey consultants and copied AOL, Excite, Yahoo and Lycos into the consumer portal game. It should have been clear that being the 5th or 6th player in the consumer portal business wouldn't work. AltaVista spent hundreds of millions on acquisitions that never worked, and spent $100M on a brand advertising campaign. They spent NOTHING to improve core search. That was the undoing of AltaVista.
AltaVista was the best, fastest search out there. Then they stopped focusing on search. Their index wasn't updated frequently. Their search slowed down. Quality dropped. They created an opportunity for someone who would focus on search.

Some question whether Google is going down the same path, losing its focus on core search because of the shiny distractions of free e-mail, social networks, instant messaging, and other portal-like goodies. Don seems concerned as well, ending with a warning to Google:
The last chapter has not been written in the search game. Microsoft MSN Search is every bit as good as Google in terms of size, speed, and relevance. Microsoft has come from behind several times before. I wouldn't bet against them now. MSN Search is just getting started.
Like AltaVista, I think MSN created the opportunity for Google by neglecting search in MSN and on the desktop for so many years. When you're the default search in the default browser in the default operating system, you have to be pretty bad to push so many people to go through the effort of switching.

But the difference is that MSN can recover from this mistake. With the vast resources of the Microsoft juggernaut behind them, they can rebuild MSN Search. Over the last year, they have been doing so, building their own search engine, getting the quality up, and, just as important, focusing on user perception of the quality.

And user perception is important. While I don't agree with Don that MSN Search is as good as Google, I don't think it has to be. It only have to be good enough. It only has to be good enough that people stop bothering to switch their defaults because, as they see it, it doesn't really matter anymore which engine they use, so they might as well use the one that's already set up.

That's the challenge in front of Google. Not only do they have to be better than MSN Search, they have to be much better than MSN Search, so much better that people keep switching. If they trip, if they slow, if they get distracted by shiny things, MSN will catch up, and the game will be over.

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