Did Cuil get its launch wrong?

31 July 2008

The hype cycle works quickly these days. At about 9pm US Pacific time, Techcrunch published its first story on the search engine startup Cuil. It was far from being the only site with the story around that time: the company had told a bunch of bloggers and journalists about its plans the week before with the aim of seeing it all come out in a big splurge on Monday, 28 July, 12am US Eastern.

A few hours later, the Cuil site died. Oops. But, no mind, just the effect of thousands of people hitting the site to see how it performed versus Google. "Flatlining right after your launch is more of a rite of passage than an embarrassment."

A day later and the euphoria had gone. "The story quickly turned from Google killer to Google's lunch."

Getting a backlash so quickly? "This was entirely the company's own fault. It pre-briefed every blogger and tech journalist on the planet, but didn't allow anyone to actually the test the search engine before the launch," complained Erick Schonfeld.

And you're surprised? Who says the old promotional tricks don't work?

I can't imagine that Cuil's management didn't know the search results would be terrible. So, what are you going to do? Let people play with it before the big unveiling and see a bunch of posts say: "Move along folks, nothing to see here"? Or are you going to pile on the statistics and the big claims and hope nobody notices there is a problem? With this kind of product, people are going to notice pretty quickly but there is the question of whether it matters.

Cuil got the backlash in early. In the old days, this kind of backlash would take weeks. It took just one fishwrap cycle for Cuil. But, this arguably gives the company the chance to recover or to simply fade away. Whatever they do next, there are a lot of people who will remember who they are. Can you say the same for Hakia or any of the other Google wannabes? (For what it's worth, I don't think any the putative Google replacements are going to get anywhere - the technology cycle doesn't work like that. Like rarely gets replaced with like unless the leader stumbles really badly. It's generally a different concept that shoves the old guard out of the way.)

A similar thing happened with the 'Ginger/Segway' launch, although this one played out in a different way. There was a lengthy "Ginger is coming. It will change the world" phase, helped along because the company concentrated on Dean Kamen versus the product. Then the Segway launched and everybody laughed. I still think it's a joke machine but they keep making them. And you don't find that many people who haven't heard of a Segway.

Tom at Tom's Tech Blog points to Sarah Lacy's criticism of the rush to publish that made so many writers publicly change their minds in less than a day. Her argument is that people should hang back, think a bit, then publish. That's a lovely thought. It is one I shall treasure. Because, although she's right on that score, in principle. Unfortunately, it doesn't work.

The current ad-driven business model for Internet publishing does not reward delay, no matter how good the analysis is. The initial burst of interest is the one publishers want to catch: waiting does not often get you a big audience. And, although the marketing consultants bang on about 'conversation' and 'engagement', the sites making money off of publishing need audience to sell ads. PRs also know this and exploit it: that is what they are paid to do. It's very easy to forget while doing interviews, especially under embargo - I know that I forget it all the time - but you always have to be thinking: "What have you kept hidden and why?"

For every piece of placebo-tech in the briefing - "it's got relativity powered indexing for improved relevancy scoring" - there's a caveat. Spotting the caveats is, however, more than half the fun.