Why Search Is Difficult

September 12, 2009

I read Henry Blodget’s “Danny Sullivan: Carol Bartz Is the Sarah Palin of Search” and recognized a rare bird spotting event. Two fellows with spectacular Google PageRankings illustrate the challenges the notion of “search” presents to analysts, pundits, wizards, search engine optimization mavens, and other assorted search trend watchers. First, you need to read Mr. Blodget’s essay and then follow the links in his article. The idea is what could pass among the online advertising crowd as a 60 second bit on 30 Rock. But the write up called attention, in my opinion, to the significant epistemological issues that stick to the word “search” like a leech to a patient’s chest.

Here are my personal observations:

First, search is not defined. The assumption is made that everyone knows what search means. In the context of Mr. Blodget’s quote rundown and the original Sullivan observation, search means online advertising and getting eyeballs to a public Web site. The problem is that a person with a different angle on search won’t know what the heck the analogy is supposed to illuminate. That’s the problem. No one knows what search means because the folks talking about the concept omit the definition part of the communication process. The analogy of Palin to Bartz is clever but does little to illuminate Yahoo’s present challenges.

Second, a single person cannot make a quick change at an outfit the size of Yahoo within the business processes in play within Yahoo. At this point in time, Yahoo is mired in its business methods, and the president (forget who is running the show at any point in time) looks silly because the business processes themselves are silly. This explains some of the statements by Ms. Bartz. There are no better nor worse than generalizations made by any executive trying to impart change when the flow of decisions works like a bowling ball going down a gutter. Change, as students of that management discipline know, is a tough job. Working to make that change and deal with the need to make public comments ensures statements that are likely to tickle some listeners’ ribs.

Third, when the word “search” is used in a context involving Yahoo, the difficult problem is the Yahoo “as is” technical infrastructure. By “infrastructure” I mean the hardware, software, technical architecture, and in place systems. In order to tame search, one needs to look at what must be done among the handful of companies that are generating positive cash flow in * any * sector of the information retrieval and content processing sector. There are not that many companies making money, a fact that is often overlooked. But the characteristics are pretty easy to identify; for example:

  1. Technical competence that is channeled
  2. Ability to solve a customer’s problem in a way that does not generate greater costs going forward than the revenue stream can support
  3. Reasonable cohesion within and among technical teams
  4. An affordable, repeatable method for getting the word out to potential buyers
  5. A way to generate money sufficient to pay the bills, produce surplus cash that can be invested in new ways to make money, and leave money around to keep stakeholders happy.

When these components are in balance, the company – no matter how quirky or wacky its management – can succeed in one or more of the business sectors that make up the search market. When misaligned, making money from content processing and information retrieval is tough. When revenues falter or profits collapse, the quirks become hallmarks of ineptitude.

Yahoo is a goner. I don’t think a change in its top management will make any difference whatsoever. Yahoo is a bit like the eastern European countries with big ideas and ways of doing business that failed economically. Yahoo is in that situation, and I don’t see a revolution coming. Yahoo is the end point of an Internet company following a digital entity life cycle. Yahoo is trending downward.

Forget the people at the top. Yahoo to survive has to undergo a revolution or be subjected to what Japanese management experts call “bunsha”. Without deconstruction and reinvention, Yahoo cannot be other than Yahoo. That’s no joke, and it puts in context why casual chatter about “search” rarely yields a change in a company dependent on “finding” systems.

Stephen Arnold, September 12, 2009


Comments are closed.

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Meta