For Online Success, Make Me a Match

"It's hard to overstate what Apple's done with the App Store," said a game developer friend last night. Another IT buddy at the same dinner concurred: "It's just an absurdly easy platform for publishers to get product into the hands of consumers. They've definitely earned their 30%."

Profoundly true, my friends' comments underscore the idea that the biggest success stories of our day share a common characteristic: they are matchmakers, not brides.

Being a matchmaker -- connecting the searchers with those who wish to be found -- is Google's core business, of course, along with every other search engine that's come along since 1993. And it's not the only modern-day success story built on a foundation of matchmaking. Facebook, for example, turned on the afterburners and exited the atmosphere right around June 2007, when it turned the site into a platform, effectively creating an army of unpaid and informal content "partners" --- Zynga not least among them -- dedicated to ensuring the success of the social network and, thereby, their own survival.



Being a matchmaker depends on not having a vested interest in which content comes out on top. We trust our matchmakers because, implicitly, we trust their impartiality. We believe they only want to show us the most objectively relevant results, that they're not peddling their own agenda.

And we tend to get sensitive when that trust is threatened. Take this story from Ars Technica:


In the late summer and autumn of 2009, UK entrepreneur Adam Raff launched the site to describe his own shabby treatment at the hands of Google. Raff's vertical search engine, Foundem, had been "penalized" by Google's search engine. From 2006 through most of 2009, his site was "effectively disappeared from the Internet," and Google soon put him in an AdWords penalty box, too. Yahoo and Bing applied no such penalties. Raff argued that Google was targeting him as a competitor.


The Ars Technica piece lays out the arguments for "search neutrality": effectively, regulation to ensure that search engines don't become choke points for innovation. Search neutrality offers stability to the thousands of companies whose online financial infrastructure depends on Google operating fairly. Without it, Google can simply wave its magic wand and make online retailers go from profitable businesses to customerless wastelands.

And, yes, as the Ars piece points out, Google can enter any market and instantly see massive traffic by pushing its own products. But would it be wise for the search giant to do this?

Providing the backdrop for the activities of others rather than their own makes these matchmakers more stable and less subject to the whims of fad and fashion than companies that deliver the end result. If Facebook were the games developer, it would have suffered when people grew bored of Scramble. Instead, it simply served up more Bejeweled. It doesn't matter whose content is winning, as long as Zuckerberg and Co. get to deliver it.

Back to Apple. As of its April earnings call, we had downloaded more than 4 billion apps to our collective devices. A stint at the top of the App Store charts is as good as an endorsement from Oprah. And surely Apple has enough clever folks under its roof to come up with a clever game and push it out for 99 cents. But the short-term gain would anger those unpaid partners.

Yet Apple, Facebook and Google are big enough that they can afford to irritate a few developers. When you're a matchmaker, after all, a client might just turn out to be your own future husband, and you shouldn't ignore the opportunity should it present itself. Their strength, though, lies in their ability to connect us with others.

Want to connect with me? Leave me a comment here or find me via @kcolbin.

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