Jakob Nielsen, What Are You Smoking?

Here’s today’s column, originally in MediaPost.

Dear Jakob Nielsen,

I almost missed the last newsletter you sent me, as it was delivered
directly to my junk mail folder. Maybe Microsoft was so dismayed by
your recent commentary that Outlook rebelled against you. Whatever the
reason, I’m of two minds about your section on “What MS Can Do Without
Y!” First, I thought you were joking and dismissed it outright. Then, I
thought that if you were serious, someone needed to provide a rebuttal.

In your newsletter, you turn to Microsoft’s future and what it
should do with the $50 billion which you say Steve Ballmer “needs to do
something else with” now that it won’t acquire Yahoo (though you don’t
mention why). Your entire enterprise is devoted to how publishers,
marketers, and others can improve themselves by focusing on the
consumer’s experience, but your ideas here would do the opposite:
They’re in the worst interests of the consumer and they’d cripple
Microsoft. I’ll address your points one by one.

Your concept overall is that you want Ballmer “to refund some of the
outrageous sums harvested by search engines.” If Yahoo and Microsoft
were making such outrageous sums, why would they need to join forces?
Shouldn’t you address this letter to Google, which is making the most
outrageous sums of anyone in online advertising? And if you did turn to
Google, would you chide Google (and its sister nonprofit Google.org)
for investing in such potentially beneficial technologies as WiMax,
electric cars, and aerospace? What about giving back by hiring and
paying taxes? How much needs to be refunded anyway?

Then you write what Ballmer should do. First, “Give back to the
websites that create the content that search engines currently scrape
for free: pay sites for only being indexed in one search engine and
refuse the other engines. In particular, allow access to deep link
archives of value-added content for users entering from your search
engine. Value proportion [sic] to users: When you search on engine X,
you find stuff that’s otherwise not available.”

Wouldn’t users achieve the best value by being able access the
entire Web from multiple sources? How would users even remember what’s
in which engine? Instead, Microsoft and other engines could learn from
vertical search engines and better tailor results pages to
vertical-specific queries. Just look at search engines such as Retrevo for consumer electronics and Kosmix
for various verticals, including health, and how they add layers of
intelligence about the query to improve the user experience. Then
again, Microsoft acquired health search site Medstory and shopping site Jellyfish, so maybe it’s just an issue of using those assets better.

Here’s your next idea: “Give back to the users. For example, pay IT
departments for redirecting all searches emanating from their company
to engine X. Value prop to advertisers: if you want to reach the B2B
audience, you need placement on our SERPs [search engine results pages]
because that’s all business users see in 70% of the Fortune 500.”

I’m not a big fan of IT departments. It’s a really bad idea for me
to write this publicly since no one will ever fix my computer again,
but most IT people I’ve worked with are so condescending and insulting
that I’d rather call Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for tech support than deal
with them. They have this great way of giving me shoddy machinery and
blaming it on me when it breaks. Your idea accomplishes one feat I
never thought possible: You found a way that would make me loathe IT
people even more.

If I’m trying to search on my favorite engine and it redirects to an
engine I did not want to use, I will raise hell, and I may even start
interviewing with other companies where the first question I’ll ask
them is, “Can I use whatever search engine I want here?” I’m sure
advertisers will pay a premium to reach these frustrated users
wondering where their favorite search engine went. You’re essentially
advising a corporate version of state-sponsored censorship.

Lastly, you write, “Finally, and most importantly: improve basic
search performance. For example by creating human-readable summaries of
the search results instead of the horrible 2-line snippets currently
used. One idea is to hire a million people (probably no more than
~$1B/year) to use an instrumented browser that requires them to pass
judgment on the usefulness of every search hit they visit. This data
could allow sorting the SERP by usefulness instead of popularity and
thus vastly improve the quality of searches.”

I agree with the “improve basic search performance part,” but you
miss the boat on the rest. First of all, site owners can already
improve those snippets by engaging in basic search engine optimization.
Yahoo’s Open Search initiatives
give sites even more power to make listings more useful, and other
engines should follow suit. Why would some random person earning
minimum wage (or the going rate in their home country) provide a better
result description? For non-optimized listings, engines can still use
their technology to better craft those descriptions automatically.
Finally, search engines sort SERPs primarily by relevance and not
popularity, which the engines need to do to minimize the results being

Jakob, please stop giving search engines unsolicited advice. I’m not a huge fan of Steve Ballmer; ever since I saw that monkey dance video
of him, it’s been hard to take him seriously. But I clearly don’t hate
him as much as you do. Apparently, I think more highly of consumers,
too. Hey, it’s not all bad; I’m sure you’re at least winning more
points with IT departments.

Your Favorite Search Insider (or one of ‘em),


One thought on “Jakob Nielsen, What Are You Smoking?

  1. VERY well said.
    Thanks for standing up and breaking it all down for the rest of us.
    community manager
    CorePage | Know more. Sell faster.

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