I'm a partner in the advanced analytics group at Bain & Company, the global management consulting firm. My primary focus is on marketing analytics (bio). I've been writing here (views my own) about marketing, technology, e-business, and analytics since 2003 (blog name explained).

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March 25, 2008

Surf Canyon: A Publisher-Friendly Search Reformulation Alternative

A while back, I wrote a post suggesting that Google's AdSense business was less profitable than its direct search business.  Some folks I know in the business have confirmed this.  Yesterday, the New York Times carried an article about how Google is trying to keep people on Google.com longer, and making publishers and retailers mad in the process.  But what can they do about it?

My friend Bryan Finkel recently introduced me to Mark Cramer, his MIT fraternity brother who is CEO of Surf Canyon. Surf Canyon provides a browser add-on that allows you to fine tune search results by pulling up "related" results from the "long tail" for any first-page result that most closely matches what you've asked for.

Mark was kind enough to let me play with the beta, but Surf Canyon has launched its v1 now.  I like it.  The value proposition is crystal clear.  According to Mark, 28% of search queries are reformulated, and the average query is reformulated 2.6 times.  Better reformulation via Surf Canyon = more relevant results = better click-through rate (CTR) for organic results.  (One question: does higher CTR carry over to paid search results as well?  If so, at what point would Google allow Surf Canyon to do to paid search results what it does for organic results?)

This recent post in Seeking Alpha frames this value further:

"Google is an outright winner in the horizontal search area and should continue to dominate for the foreseeable future. The real threat for Google is that area slowing down due to limitations of text-based Ads that show up as part of search results. The AdSense product has been categorized as good at monetizing crap. This is even truer for Google's horizontal search area. The weakest link here is Google being dependent on users structuring their search queries so as to accurately depict their objective as otherwise the in-context Ads will be as useless to the user as the search results. Such a requirement is taxing for the user and better alternatives will be introduced into that market space over time."

So, for publishers and retailers, the bigger picture:  Surf Canyon represents an alternative to Google's self-interested approach to providing better results.  Smart publishers might partner with Surf Canyon to promote distribution of its add-on, since presumably the more folks reformulate using Surf Canyon, the fewer folks reformulate the Google way.

Two more things to think about:

  • Surf Canyon changes the SEO game.  In addition to being relevant to the initial search term, you know have to be relevant to the top results for that search term.  In other words, your SEO strategy has to optimize not only for Google, but for Surf Canyon too.
  • Surf Canyon puts itself in the position of tracking both initial and reformulated search terms.  That's valuable information, as Compete's acquisition just demonstrated.  It also over time puts Surf Canyon in a position to suggest reordering of initial results to Google, since by tracking what people drill into, it knows what results are most popular for different search terms.

Very cool.  Good luck Mark!

Postscript: SEO for John McCain


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Thank you, Cesar, for your analysis and compliments! It's been almost two years in the works, so it's great to see people who appreciate what we've done.

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