The Customization Conundrum – Online Spin

I got a little distracted Thursday and forgot to post my first Online Spin column for MediaPost, which I’ll be writing this summer in lieu of the Search Insider.

The Customization Conundrum

How can you go wrong with offering your customers new ways to
customize their experience? Once again, a Web giant is learning that
customization isn’t a panacea.

Earlier this week, in my last Search Insider for the time being, I reviewed the challenges Yahoo will face
with its new SearchMonkey program, in which publishers create enhanced
search listings that users can incorporate into their results.
SearchMonkey is currently difficult to use, Yahoo users won’t see
enough of a payoff, and Google hit a dead end with its related Co-op
offering. How can Yahoo struggle so much with customization when it’s
such an important part of consumers’ evolving media experience?

To find some answers, let’s contrast SearchMonkey with some examples of where customization works online.

Firefox

One of the hallmarks of the Web browser Firefox is its
customizability. Firefox commands over 18% of browser usage share,
according to Net Applications. While it’s hard to gauge how many users
customize their browser, Firefox’s site shows that the top 10 add-ons this week alone have been downloaded nearly 1.5 million times. Even the 100th-most-downloaded add-on this week has over 10,000 downloads, the 200th-most-popular has nearly 5,000 downloads, and the 1,000th-most-popular has nearly 400 downloads. There’s a lot of life in this long tail.

The most popular add-ons serve a range of purposes. The top one
makes it easy to download videos from YouTube and elsewhere, while
others in the top ten block ads, increase security, display the
weather, open pages in Internet Explorer tabs within Firefox, and
synchronize bookmarks. Some add-ons clearly skew toward techies, while
others can appeal to all users. Expand the view to the top 50 and there
are more browser skins, dictionaries, and other download tools.

What nearly all the most popular add-ons have in common is that
they’re designed for everyday usage, either to increase productivity or
enhance aesthetics. That means their value shows up every single day.

Social Networks and Web Widgets

When a Facebook user installs an application, utility isn’t generally top of mind. Even popular applications in the “utility” category
include Bumper Sticker (”Stick your friends with funny stickers!”), My
Girls (”Show your girls some love!”), and Pillow Fight (”The world’s
biggest pillow fight is ON!”). How could you live without those? The
gratuitous use of exclamation points alone tells you these are not your
standard productivity tools.

On social networks, applications are mainly about self-expression.
If you’re using any of the applications above (come on, you know you’re
going to try out the pillow fight now), you’re showing your friends
that you have a sense of humor, or in some sweet but silly way, you’re
showing them you care. While Facebook keeps imposing new limits on the
functionality that helps make applications more viral, people generally
only add applications to share them with others, whether actively (by
inviting friends to take part) or passively (by including the apps on
their profile pages and automatically having apps update their news
feeds).

On MySpace and other networks, applications work similarly. Even
though some aspects of the widget craze may have been fueled by hype,
widgets will be just as pervasive as movie posters in dorm rooms and
picture frames in cubicles. They help people show off their identities
and share parts of themselves with others. People will go to great
lengths to achieve those goals, and widgets make it all fairly easy.

The Evolution of SearchMonkey

Getting back to SearchMonkey, its biggest problem, one shared by
Google Co-op, is that the payoff isn’t worth the effort. That payoff
can either come in terms of frequency, as in the pervasiveness of
Firefox add-ons once they’re installed, or through the social currency
provided by Facebook applications and other widgets. Meanwhile,
SearchMonkey’s benefits are generally too sporadic and don’t offer any
social value.

There is a way for SearchMonkey to survive. SearchMonkey can evolve into a service like Sitemaps,
the protocol for Webmasters to help search engines crawl their sites.
The end user generally has no clue that sitemaps exist, but sitemaps
improve the search experience nonetheless. And if SearchMonkey really
apes sitemaps, then Google and Microsoft will also support the standard
— and just about all search users will benefit.