Last night I had dinner with Wendy (my current partner/CEO), Tom (my last partner/CEO and current co-investor in some endeavors) and via Wendy’s introduction, a not surprisingly au fait Chris Byrne. The conversation was all over the map, but one thing came up that I cannot get out of my head. And yes, spoiler (in many senses of the word), it has to do with Google.
I think it is a statistical probability of 1 that any quorum of technology executives will inevitably talk about the future of Google. We all try not to, but much like the curious allure of NASCAR, we all keep watching the lead car knowing sooner or later there will be a ten car pile up. But, setting aside all the web 2.0isms, Microsoft-directed schadenfreude, and over/under predictions on how much Thumbstacks will sell for, a really truly interesting idea came up.
I think it was Tom that proposed that at its core, Google wants to be the entry point for any discovery activity on the web. This would surely explain Google search, froogle, Google Scholar, Google SMS (assuming “web” is taken in a generic sense as “the cloud”), Google Maps, etc.. You could even posit that Google’s acquisitions hold up against this test. Consider Writely and Google Spreadsheets to be simply the input mechanisms to create document and spreadsheet content which is then discovered on Google. If you’re going to create a spreadsheet, it’s more likely you’ll put it somewhere that it can be shared and discovered if you do it on Google. Even something like their Dodgeball acquisition, which seems totally random at first blush, sort of fits this mold if you think of it as trying to “discover” the location of your friends. And of course, by mashing all this stuff up (maps, calendars, spreadsheets, payments, etc..) you simply add exponential utility around all the secondary and tertiary activities that come after discovery. First, search for a restaurant, then map it, and then go onto Dodgeball and tell everyone you’ll be there at 8:00pm. Now assuming Tom’s distillation is accurate (which I tend to agree it is), it does beg an interesting question: what if the primary discovery mechanism people use today starts to shift away from Google?
Keep in mind that almost all your discovery activities with Google are personal (and thus singular) experiences. You go to Google, enter a search term, get Google’s view of the results, then maybe you share. Well, what if it (and you) didn’t work that way. What if the first thing you did was interface with the web in a non-singular way? Wouldn’t this be a shift in Google’s paradigm? And then it hit me.
I’m already shifting my discovery mechanisms in just this way. And parenthetically, Yahoo has bought every single leading company in this space. What I’m talking about is discovery through tagging, which is a fundamentally community-centric activity (your context is what the community thinks the content is about) and not singular activities (what you think Google might think the content is about). To be less academic and cerebral about it, consider for yourself how often you now go to del.icio.us, flickr, or whatever tag-based system you like to search for something before you go to Google? For most of us it’s probably not a very high percentage of the time (maybe 5-10%). Now consider how often you did this 6 months ago? For most of us who prefer the cutting – not bleeding – edge, the answer is probably never. But stepping way back, in only 6 months time, this is a huge shift. I know this is a pretty anecdotal back o’ the envelope calculation, but I have to say that I see my personal habits shifting increasingly towards folksonomic discovery (the only thing that beats flagrant use of neologisms is flagrant use of adjectivized neologisms).
And surprisingly, given the real material impact of even small perturbations in users’ discovery habits, the folksonomic discovery waters are still pretty uncharted. When asked by a Chinese newspaper at the end of 2005 to list my top 10 emerging technologies for 2006, near the top was “tag-based search”. I was convinced that by the end of the year we’d all be searching tag-first, keyword second. And I have to say that I am surprised that halfway through the year there are really only two significant attempts at centralizing this activity that I can find: Technorati and Wink. While Technorati just “feels” like it is more mature, Wink is definitely trying some interesting things by adding Digg-like ratings. In any event, it’s a pretty open playing field and none of the major players are fielding a team right now.
Given that Yahoo basically owns more than 50% of the tagging on the web right now (again that’s a back o’ the envelope calculation based on del.icio.us and flickr), I’m sort of surprised they have not bought Wink or Technorati. It could seamlessly fit into their existing search capability by auto-searching tags and providing a tag-related sidebar. For example, search Yahoo on “Niel Robertson” and get a sidebar of all Web 2.0 tag-based results per format (content tags, blog tags, photo tags). This is essentially the Technorati model now. Ironically, the only person that has tag search built into it’s basic search engine is, gasp, Amazon! Their A9 search engine has the ability to optionally search Flickr (see the optional sites pulldown at the right). Then again, Amazon is making a big commitment to tagging and maybe this is part of their strategy?
With that all said, I think there is a short window here where Yahoo is actually positioned well to fight against Google’s hegemony and to fundamentally shift the dominant discovery paradigm (sorry, I just had to say it) back in their direction. With their recent web2.0 tagging acquisition spree, Yahoo owns half of the equation (the tagging sites) but has yet to fulfill the other side (discovery). Even a 5-10% shift back to Yahoo would be monumentous numbers in the search market share wars. And this could easily be justified from an M&A or R&D cost perspective by doing a quick calculation (let me get my envelope out again) on the advertising-based traffic revenue benefit. The numbers would be big business to both Yahoo (gaining) as well as Google (loosing).
“Well bullocks!” you say (in your best British accent), “Yahoo doesn’t have the chutzpah in their DNA anymore.” Well, let us not forget, before search was even a twinkle in the eye of Excite, Inktomi, CompassSearch, InfoSeek, NetWanderer (3 gold stars to anyone who knows what this is), or even Google, Yahoo was the company that owned the dominant discovery paradigm. Maybe you remember it? It was called the Yahoo Directory.
I did find this today - a Yahoo search engine in beta (which i guess means nothing now a days) for Web 2.0 based search. There is also an interesting complementary blog entry on it. Perhaps they are further down this path than I suspected.