Jakob Nielsen, What Are You Smoking?

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 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 gamed.

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),


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