SFGate. Monday, March 27th 2000.”AltaVista Switches Web Portal Into High Gear / Revamped site adds new services.”
I looked this up because, on June 29, 1999, myself and my mentor/boss Mark Bockley, did a qualitative brand and category audit for AltaVista that clearly indicated that search was the opportunity. We were brought in by Jerry Blanton of their agency, to inform brand building work.
We did groups with heavy users of the various brands in the category, and discovered something pretty amazing. I believe our words in our presentation were something to the effect of, “Whoever owns search, wins.” It was clear, from the beginning, that the AltaVista wasn’t listening, and didn’t know how to listen, to consumers.
This entire article is an amazing flashback to the peak of the dot-com bubble. Google isn’t mentioned anywhere in this article, and wasn’t even in the Top 20 Internet Properties list at the end of this article and was barely mentioned in our research.
I say that to indicate that this wasn’t a case of users saying Google is awesome, and us reporting that Google is awesome, so you should be like Google.
This was a case of deep, creative, indirect listening into the motivations at work in an emerging category of behavior revealing unserved needs. AltaVista wasn’t listening that day - they had just been bought by CMGI for $2.3b.
I say this also to highlight that strategic insight - through brand listening - is possible (vital!) even when the entire industry is blind:
Here’s Rod Shrock, the CEO of Alta Vista, defending portalization in the same article. This is a year after our presentation:
“You tell me, was CBS three years ahead or behind of NBC?” Schrock asked. “No idea? So in the grand scheme of things, no one will care in 10 years whether we were three years before or after Yahoo.”
Blinded by Yahoo! And this, from an analyst (any qualitative at work?):
Charlene Li, an analyst with Forrester Research, was not so optimistic. She lauded Alta Vista’s focus on Web enthusiasts and e-commerce, but stopped short of predicting that AltaVista would one day become the Internet’s top portal for all users.
“Being a general search engine isn’t enough to catch up to a Yahoo because they are so far ahead,” Li said.
Perhaps it was too late for them to do anything about it, but suffice it to say that deep creative listening with consumers gave them the opportunity to choose - chase the portals and the wisdom of the day, or turn towards the consumer and become helpful. And they chose to follow the pack over the cliff.
To anyone reading this, I ask, have you explored how your consumer experiences your category lately?