Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, "What the Dog Saw," is actually a collection of essays: specifically, his work at The New Yorker from the past ten years or so. It's a book designed for the same sort of curious mind that delights in the random parallels found in "Freakonomics" (in which authors Levitt and Dubner ask, "What do Sumo wrestlers and kindergarten teachers have in common?"). Gladwell's essays draw comparisons between mammograms and precision bombing, Enron and the Nazi "super weapon" of the 1940s. And in amongst this collection of oddities, he finds the time to wonder why, in a world of hundreds of mustard varieties, there's really only one ketchup.
The answer is straightforward, according to the professionally trained tasters and sensory-analysis experts Gladwell interviewed: it's all in the amplitude. Ketchup, somewhat uniquely among ingestables, represents a near-perfect balance not only of the five flavors detectable by our taste buds, but also of the way they "bloom" together and the way the textures interact: "When something is high in amplitude, all its constituent elements converge into a single gestalt. You can't isolate the elements of an iconic, high-amplitude flavor like Coca-Cola or Pepsi. But you can with one of those private-label colas that you get in the supermarket... Some of the cheaper ketchups are the same way. Ketchup aficionados say that there's a disquieting unevenness to the tomato notes in Del Monte ketchup."
Google is the essence of amplitude. Though its simplicity has been praised far and wide, in reality the search engine strikes just the right balance: everything you need and not too much. You want advanced search? No problem. You want images or news or blogs? No problem. But that straightforward query box, in the vast majority of instances, is ketchup. We know that when we hit Enter, we'll get that perfect amplitude: the search engine will do just enough thinking for us to be helpful, without doing so much that we feel deprived of choice.
When you're a new product entering a market dominated by a well-established player with high amplitude, your main strategy is to try to stand out. "They're perfectly balanced? Well then we'll make garlic ketchup! Lemon ketchup! Jalapeño ketchup!" The problem, as Gladwell points out, is that those "hooks" that make it different in the beginning tend to be the very thing you get sick of first.
Remember how vertical search engines were going to swoop in and -- in their multitudes -- sweep Google off its feet? Ten years ago, I was sitting in a meeting with someone telling me their new site was a "portal-vortal, a kind of vertical portal" -- whatever that meant. But the vertical hook is, by definition, limiting. There's a reason I go to Google instead of individual fora when I've got an IT question; it's because I don't know who'll have the best answer and I can't be bothered to do an individual search on each site.
Certain verticals have won their way into our hearts: Rotten Tomatoes, for example, is likely the first place you'll go for a movie review. But overall, the search industry acts more like ketchup than mustard. Gladwell quotes Howard Moskowitz, a food-testing market research guru: "I guess," says Moskowitz, "ketchup is ketchup."
Me, I guess search is Google -- but I'd be interested to know if you see any jalapeño-flavored verticals on the horizon. Let me know in the comments or via @kcolbin.