Stephen E. Arnold: Search Implodes, Yahoo & Google Both is Jeopardy

IO Impotency
Stephen E. Arnold
Stephen E. Arnold

What Most Search Vendors Cannot Pull Off

I recently submitted an Information Today column that reported about Antidot’s tactical play to enter the US market. One of the fact checkers for the write up alerted me that most of the companies I identified were unknown to US readers. Test yourself. How many of these firms do you recognize? How many of them provide information retrieval services?

  • A2ia
  • Albert (originally AMI Albert and AMI does not mean friend)
  • Dassault Exalead
  • Datops
  • EZ2Find
  • Kartoo
  • Lingway
  • LUT Technologies
  • Pertimm
  • Polyspot
  • Quaero
  • Questel
  • Sinequa

How did you do? The point is that French vendors of information retrieval and content processing technology find themselves in a crowded boat. Most of the enterprise search vendors have flamed out or resigned themselves to pitching to venture capitalist that their technology is the Next Big Thing. A lucky few sell out and cash in; for example Datops. Others are ignored or forgotten.

The same situation exists for vendors of search technology in other countries. Search is a tough business. And when former Googlers like Marissa Meyer was the boss when Yahoo’s share of the Web search market sagged below 10 percent. In the same time period, Microsoft increased Bing’s share to about 14 percent. Google dogpaddled and held steady. Other Web search providers make up the balance of the market players. Business Insider reported:

This is a big problem for Yahoo since its search business is lucrative. While Yahoo’s display ad business fell 7% last quarter, revenue from search was up 6% on a year-over-year basis. Revenue from search was $428 million compared to $436 million from its display ad business.

Now enterprise search vendors have been trying to use verbal magic to unlock consistently growing revenue. So far only two vendors have been able to find a way to open the revenue vault’s lock. Autonomy tallied more than $800 million in revenue at the time of its sale to Hewlett Packard. The outcome of that deal was a multi-billion dollar write off and many legal accusations. One thing is clear through the murky rhetoric the deal produced. Hewlett Packard had zero understanding of search and has been looking for a scapegoat to slaughter for its corporate decision. This is not helping the search vendors chasing deals.

Google converted Web search into a $60 billion revenue stream. The fact that the core idea for online advertising originated with the pay-to-play company GoTo which then morphed into Overture which THEN was acquired by Yahoo. Think of the irony. Yahoo has the technology that makes Google a one trick, but very lucrative revenue pony. But, to be fair, Google Web search is not the enterprise search needed to locate a factoid for a marketing assistant. Feed this query “how me the versions of the marketing VP’s last product road map” to a Google appliance and check the results. The human has to do some old fashioned human-type work. To find this information with a Google Search Appliance or any other information retrieval engine for that matter is tricky. Basic indexing cannot do the job, so most marketing assistants hunt manually through files, folders, and hard copies looking for the Easter egg.

Many of the pioneering search engines tried explaining their products and services using euphemisms. There was question answering, content intelligence, smart content, predictive retrieval, entity extraction, and dozens and dozens of phrases that sound fine but are very difficult to define; for example, knowledge management and the phrase “enterprise search” itself or “image recognition” or “predictive analytics”, among others.

I had a hearty chuckle when I read “Don’t Sell a Product, Sell a Whole New Way of Thinking.” Search has been available for at least 50 years. Think RECON, Orbit, Fulcrum Technologies, BASIS, Teratext, and other artifacts of search and retrieval. Smart folks cooked up even the computationally challenged Delphes system, the metasearch system Vivisimo, and the essentially unknown Quertle.

A romp through these firm’s marketing collateral, PowerPoints, and PDFs makes clear that no buzzword has been left untried. Buyers did and do not know what the systems actually delivered.  This is evidence that search vendors have not been able to “sell a whole new way of thinking.”

No kidding. The synonyms search marketers have used in order to generate interest and hopefully a sale are a catalog of information technology jargon. Here is a short list of some of the terms from the 1990s:

  • Business intelligence
  • Competitive intelligence
  • Content governance
  • Content management
  • Customer support then customer relationship management.
  • Knowledge management
  • Neurodynamics
  • Text analytics

If I accept the Harvard analysis, the failing of enterprise search is not financial fiddling and jargon. As you may recall, Microsoft paid $1.2 billion for Fast Search & Transfer. The investigation into allegations of financial fancy dancing were resolved recently with one executive facing a possible jail term and employment restrictions. There are other companies that tried to blend search with content only to find that the combination was not quite like peanut butter and jelly. Do you use Factiva or Ebsco? Did I hear a “what?’ Other companies embraced slick visualizations to communicate key information at a glance. Do you remember Grokker? There was semantic search. Do you recollect Siderean Software.

One success story was Oingo, renamed Applied Semantics. Google understood the value of mapping words to ads and purchased the company to further its non search goals of generating ad revenue.

According to the HBR:

To find the shift, ask yourself a few questions. What was the original insight that led to the innovation? Where do you feel people “don’t get it” about your solution? What is the “aha” moment when someone turns from disinterested to enthusiastic?

Those who code up search systems are quite bright. Is this pat formula of shifting thinking the solution to the business challenges these firms face:

Attivio. Founded by Fast Search & Transfer alums, the company has ingested more than $35 million in venture funding. The company’s positioning is “an actionable 360 degree view of anything you need.” Okay. Dassault Exalead used the same line several years.

Coveo. The company has tapped venture firms for more than $30 million since the firm’s founding in 2004, Coveo uses the phrase “enterprise search” and wraps it in knowledge workers, custom service, engineering, and CRM. The idea is that Coveo delivers solutions tailored to a specific business functions and employee roles.

SRCH2. This is a Xoogler founded company that like Perfect Search before emphasizes speed. The alternative is better than open source search solutions.

Lucid Works. Like Vivisimo, Lucid Works has embraced Big Data and the cloud. The only slow downs Lucid has encountered has been turnover in CEOs, marketing, and engineering professionals. The most recent hurdle to trip up Lucid is the interest in ElasticSearch, fat with almost $100 million in venture funding and developers from the open source community.

IBM Watson. Based on open source and home grown technology, IBM’s marketers have showcased Watson on Jeopardy and garnered headlines for the $1 billion investment IBM is making in its “smart” information processing system. The most recent demonstration of Watson was producing a recipe for Bon Appetit readers.

Amazon’s search approach is to provide it as a service to those using Amazon Web services. Search is, in my mind, just a utility for Amazon. Amazon’s search system on its eCommerce site is not particularly good. Want to NOT out books not yet available on the system. Well, good luck with that query.

After I stopped chuckling, I realized that the Harvard article is less concerned with precision and recall than advocating deception, maybe cleverness. No enterprise search vendor has approached Autonomy’s revenues with the sole exception of Google’s licensing of the wildly expensive Google Search Appliance. At the time of its sale to Oracle, Endeca was chugging along at an estimated $150 million in revenue. Oracle paid about $1 billion for Endeca. With that benchmark, name another enterprise search vendor or eCommerce search vendor that has raced past Endeca. For the majority of enterprise search vendors, revenues of $3 to $10 million represent very significant achievements.

An MBA who takes over an enterprise search company may believe that wordsmithing will make sales. Sure, some sales may result but will the revenue be sustainable. Most enterprise search sales are a knee jerk to problems with the incumbent search system.

Without concrete positive case studies, talking about search is sophistry. There are comparatively few, specific, return on investment analyses for enterprise seach installations. I provided a link to a struggling LinkedIn person about an Italian library’s shift from the 1960s BASIS system to a Google Search Appliance.

Is enterprise search an anomaly in business software. Will the investment firms get their money back from their investments in search and retrieval?

Ask a Harvard MBA steeped in the lore of selling a whole new way of thinking. Ignore 50 years of search history. Success in search is difficult to achieve. Duplicity won’t do the job.

Stephen E Arnold, July 19, 2014