close up of a frustrated man
PHOTO: Simon James

“We don’t want to make it easy for people to find stuff, because we want people to stay on our site.” So said George Bell, then CEO of search engine Excite, back around 1998.

This is the way so many traditional managers think. It’s the cult of volume. The obsession with more. Success is about more visitors, more pages visited, more time spent. It’s always about more, more, more.

I recently talked to a manager at a food safety website. A large part of their traffic was about recipes because everybody loves recipes and everybody loves volume. And even though your recipes are not a core part of food safety, you’ve got to have them because they bring volume and success is all about volume.

It goes deeper. Everyone wants to produce. Nobody wants to service and maintain. If you’re a new manager you must do something new. You must initiate new projects. You must produce. You must produce.

The genius of Google was Page Rank. What it did was tap into human collective intelligence. According to Page Rank, the more people linked to a page the more important it was and the higher it would rank in the search results.

The founders of Google spent a couple of years going around to all the search engines trying to license Page Rank. They would show them how Page Rank was delivering better search results. That’s when George Bell from Excite got really upset with them because they were foolish grad students who didn’t understand real business.

Real business is not about serving and helping people. It’s about manipulating them, corralling them so that as much of their time as possible can be sold to advertisers. This strategy has been called all sorts of things: stickiness, interactivity, engagement, conversion. At its core, it’s always been about getting the customer to do what you want them to do, getting them to go on your journey, getting them to spend the maximum amount of time and money as possible. This strategy still works. But not as well as it used to.

As people become better educated and more connected to their peers, they become less dependent on organizations, less open to manipulation, less gullible to branding. Google didn’t just create a search engine. It tapped into a whole new cultural awakening where people felt empowered and where personal time was becoming the most precious resource.

In 99 out of 100 conversations I have about digital, management only cares about volume. More. More. More. New. New. New. Innovative. Innovative. Innovative. It is so incredibly rare to find a manager who will invest time and money in helping people find stuff more easily. And, once a customer has found something, helping them understand it more easily.

I shudder at most marketing-led websites. With their ridiculous carousels and phony stock images and effusive, hyperbolic, empty content drivel, they are a pantomime to the past. Out there hunting their new customers. Setting sights on their targets who they will convert with clichés and false promises. This strategy still works if you throw enough money at it. But not as well as it used to.

"Users come to your web site? To search?" Google founder, Larry Page asked. "And you don’t want to be the best damn search engine there is? That’s insane! That’s a dead company, right?"

Right.