The Attacker’s Dilemma

The Attacker's DilemmaSome of you might remember how hard it was to search the internet in the mid-90s. Because search sites were mostly hand-curated, it was often diabolically hard to find even basic information.

I still remember trying to find the official site for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. It took about an hour, and I used at least three different search sites (yahoo, lycos & alta vista). None of them retunred a direct link to the official site, and it took forever to find a site writing about the Olympics that included a link.

It’s a wonder that we got anything done online back then.

So when Google arrived with it’s search algorithm, it was able to overtake the most popular site on the internet at the time (yahoo) almost instantly. That’s because if you searched for a phrase like “Olympics official site”, it tended to return the official Olympic site in the top spot.

That was much more than a 10X performance improvement, and that’s why Google was able to take on the giants of the internet, in their areas of strength, and still win.

So what will it take to knock off Google?

That is something that Microsoft has been trying to do with Bing. A couple of weeks ago they launched the Bing It On challenge, which enabled you to enter search terms and compare the results from Google & Bing side by side. Then you picked which results you thought were better.

Here are the results from mine (sorry for the very egocentric searches! It seemed safest to stick with topics that I know well):

The Attacker's Dilemma

You can see that I preferred Google’s results to Bing’s in 3 out of the 5 searches. But the big question is: even if I had preferred Bing in 5 out of 5, would I switch?

The answer is: almost certainly not.

You probably wouldn’t either.

There are all kinds of reasons for this, including:

  • The differences are tiny. On most of these searches, 7 or 8 of the top 10 ten sites returned were the same across both. So when I picked one over the other, it tended to be because I liked the 9th result on one search better than on the other. This difference is trivial. Even if I preferred Bing on all 5 searches, a 10% performance improvement usually isn’t enough to justify a change, because:
  • Changing search engines changes your workflow. Google is strongly integrated into my workflow. I use Google Chrome as a browser, I read my RSS feeds on Google Reader, get email through gmail, etc. If I change search engines, I end up needing to change all of these at well. Even if I don’t, they won’t perform as well. So if I’m going to disrupt my entire workflow, I need a lot more than a 10-20% improvement in basic search results.
  • The search problem has been solved. This is the big one. I had a big search problem in 1996. Now I don’t. The search problem has been solved – at least the basic one has. I can see ways in which we can still improve search – but a slightly improved algorithm doesn’t address these ideas.

All of this adds up to the Attacker’s Dilemma. And that is: unless you bring a major performance improvement, there is no point in directly attacking a strong incumbent in their area of strength.

You need to find a niche that isn’t being served. You need to find area where you can build a learning advantage. The actions you take when you are entering a market are quite different from those that you take when you are building one.

The Bing it One challenge would have been great in 1998. This would have been a great promotion back when the algorithmic search market was still being built.

Now? Not so much.

image credit: compete

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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

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