The Build

15:29

Against Search

2 February 2009

Tony [Comstock] has described Google as “lazy” for various sins: The sex-negative algorithm changes, considering [penis] a less naughty word than [clitoris], and so forth. And he has a good point.

But, really, aren’t we the lazy ones?

Just like Homo Sapiens has trouble imagining geological time, Homo Internetica has trouble imagining time periods more than a couple of years. In 1994, just having a web site was enough; we didn’t care how we ranked in search engines, because there weren’t any, and then when there were, they were lame. (Remember lists of links as the height of Internet culture?)

That gave way to the era of the search engine, an era that I believe is now coming to a close. Until a couple of years ago, the trick to success was making sure you were properly ranked on Google, and the world would be delivered to you.

And we got very lazy. We assumed that the world would always be that way, that Google would continue to deliver to us what they always did. I would hope that the events of September through December, 2006, would have disabused everyone of that notion.

Really, Google is trying to solve an impossible problem. What does it mean to search for “pump”? What could the top ten results possibly be? (This is why Wikipedia figures so large in Google search results; it’s an easy way of punting on impossible-to-figure queries.) For a while, just having a web site that was pump-related was enough, because not everyone had one of those.

Now, everyone does. It’s like having a telephone: If you don’t have a web site, you’re not serious about business. (In fact, I’d say at this point you could skip the telephone first. And a fax machine? Whatever; use eFax if you care.)

But when the entire world is on the Internet, then search becomes worse than useless. Google understands this problem, but their basic model, which is, “Type in a short phrase and we’ll tell you about web sites” is as much a part of their DNA as Microsoft’s Windows codebase, and just as much of an anchor. I have no idea what will replace it (if I did, I’d be out building it), but something will.

Today, trying to build a business around organic search is becoming counterproductive. What do you think of when you see a company called “AAAAA Aardvark Plumbing Service”? Not “quality,” but “oh, look, they’re gaming the indexing system.”

So, it’s time to stop thinking about organic search results. It’s over, it’s done. Even if [real sex] did the right thing (and I’m not claiming it does), there are probably 1,250 companies (minimum) that could make a plausible claim to having pages that are relevant to that term; are you really that interested in spending time fighting between results page 119 and 121?

It’s time to get back to selling our wares by, you know, finding people proactively and getting it into their hands. Networking, marketing, advertising, all of that boring tedious fiddly work.

Just like we had to back in 1993.

And some companies won’t make it, because the cost of doing that marketing will exceed the revenue that the results will produce. That’s not a comfortable truth, but it is a truth nonetheless. It will mean that the old traditional boogiemen of distributors and other gatekeepers will continue to be important, and will continue to get their cut.

Remember how people told us that the Internet would completely disintermediate everything, and it would be a direct artist-to-consumer paradise? They lied.

The organic search results gold rush has been over since September, 2006. Time to get back to work.

Tony Comstock at 16:00, 2 February 2009:

Um, no. It was Google that described themselves as lazy. ;-)

How Film Festivals and Distribution Deals Kill Independent Films Part 3, A Room Full of Strangers | The Art & Business of Making Erotic Films at 06:37, 8 February 2009:

[…] filmmakers promote and sell their films. Recommended reading before the next installment is “Against Search”, by Christophe Pettus.¬†¬†Christophe has been a computer programmer since forever, an internet […]

Valerie Lewis at 09:18, 8 February 2009:

Seriously interesting and mind opening. I think we are not lazy but stuck in a spinning wheel that hypnotizes us. Therefor we don’t take the time to think about the reality and the future. We get used to do it the “old” way, the way it’s suppose to work.

Josh Berkus at 11:27, 15 March 2009:

Christophe,

Why September 2006?

Xof at 12:41, 15 March 2009:

Why September 2006?

Although Google tweaks their algorithms all the time, they did an especially big change in September (and, later, again in November) 2006 that caused massive PageRank changes for many sites, especially those in the “clean, well-lighted place for sex goodies” market. Many site saw their organic search results from Google drop to 30% of what they were previously.