Saturday, September 30, 2006

Save Jeeves!!!

I want to save Jeeves, and I want YOUR help. You can help, by passing this link along to other Jeeves fans, or even non-Jeeves-fans who might find it informative. My hopes would be that the higher-ups in the Ask Jeeves world (and their parent company IAC) -- and perhaps ultimately Barry Diller himself, will come to read this piece, and reconsider their decision.

(Quick note, I have recieved a large amount of comments regarding the use of the word "butler" instead of "valet". I apologize for the wording, but the word "valet" has an entirely different meaning in the U.S. (it's a car-parking attendant) and when we say "butler" - I believe we are describing what would be called a "valet" in the U.K. Again, forgive the usage, but this article was first written for the people I am most trying to convince -- the executives of Ask Jeeves and IAC.)

But I get ahead of myself. Who am I -- that you should listen to me? And what exactly IS happening with Jeeves anyway? And what if you don't really give a rat about Jeeves -- why should you care if he disappears tommorrow? These three questions, I will try to answer as plainly as possible within this post.

Firstly, who am I? I am a former Jeeves employee, who has put in many years of service to the butler, since the early heydays of the dotcom boom, to the darkest depths of looming bankruptcy, and the remarkable rebound that made Jeeves one of the icons of tenacity and resilience from the ashes of the dotcom bust. I survived the best of times and the worst of times in the company -- and saw so many layoffs it would make your head spin. But through it all, I kept faith in the butler, and that faith was always rewarded. With some regret, I left the company a while back, to pursue a proverbial "offer I couldn't refuse" -- yet my heart still remains with the old company, and the excellent people I worked with there.

To answer the second question -- what IS happening with Jeeves lately? Well, if you have missed the stories in the news, you can easily do a search yourself -- just ask Jeeves himself, "Jeeves is dumping the butler?" and you'll get several links describing the scenario. Without going into too much detail, it would seem that the new owners of the company (Interactive Corp), are not too fond of the butler, and they would like to see him go. More specifically, if rumors on the internet are to believed, it would seem Barry Diller himself wants the butler's head on a plate. And I do believe the rumors, somewhat, because at least back when I was still with the company, there was never any serious talk about removing the world-famous icon, and I think Ask Jeeves executives would never shoot themselves in the foot by destroying their most recognizable brand. Sadly, it would seem that the aforementioned foot-shooting is going to take place anyway.

And now to the third question -- why should you care what I have to say? Well, if you are a Jeeves fan, or an employee, or a former employee with friends and vested interests in the company, that answer is pretty obvious. But even if you aren't a Jeeves fan, you should still care about the fate of the butler. After all, the whole beauty of the internet is freedom of choice -- including choice of which search engine to use. And despite my own admitted fondness for the Goliath of the search industry (Google, in case you've been living under a rock for the past few years) -- I am also a firm believer that power corrupts. Even with their Do No Evil motto, the world is a better place, with challengers such as the also-mighty Yahoo, and the scrappy Ask Jeeves, waiting in the wings to keep things interesting. If nothing else, amongst the big four search brands (Google, Yahoo, MSN, and Jeeves) -- the butler is the most human face, the most welcoming character to greet the curious internet searcher. It is sad that he be squelched, in the vain hopes that people will somehow take the site to be a "serious" contender in the search world.

In fact -- it's a painfully curious oversight that the IAC and Ask Jeeves execs can't see that Google and Yahoo's own meteoric rise was brought about, in part, by their very non-serious approach to business. Google long prided itself in it's quirky name, and often-changing artwork that showed the company's fun-loving and human side. Yahoo, despite being deeply ingrained in business-people's minds as a seriously powerful business, still sports a name that your average user can yodel in goofy delight. And MSN, despite being the most "serious" of the big search engines, and leveraging their almighty monopoly over the computing world (read: cheating) - still cannot gain traction against the other sites. Face it, the internet is intimidating and inhuman enough as it is, nobody is going to visit you more often because you have decided that your site has too much personality, and would be better off being "serious".

And having long walked the halls of Ask Jeeves, I also know that the butler's fans -- the sites most loyal users -- share my beliefs. How do I know that? Aside from endless anecdotal evidence, I also know for a fact that one of the things that made us Google's most valuable search partner, was our differentiated user base! That's right, whereas many other sites have lots of crossover users, Jeeves has always had a remarkably high percentage of users who did NOT often use other search engines (such as Google or MSN). When Google shows their ads to Jeeves users, they know their ads are being seen by fresh eyes, not the same people who already use Google for search. Why is this? Because the butler commands loyalty. People in the business world have become blinded by their own immersion in the internet, and they seem to have forgotten the massivly large chunk of the population that still sees computers and the internet world as a very intimidating place. This massively large chunk doesn't want serious, they want helpful, they want what works. And the butler fills both those needs.

The other area in which Jeeves execs have been chronically short-sighted has been the value of Jeeves persona to kids. Early on in the dotcom era, with very little work and remarkably little content, Ask Jeeves Kids enjoyed an unbelievably strong following amongst children and parents and teachers (read: the backbone of our society). Sadly, due to the difficulty of "monetizing" Ask Jeeves Kids traffic, the site was neglected and ignored... with people being systematically cut from the project until there was literally nobody left to update it. Despite this, the site still gets a decent amount of traffic for something that -- at least at the time of my departure from the company -- had zero investment from the company. A golden opportunity to impress a very strong brand upon an entire generation of kids, in a useful and informative way, wasted -- because Jeeves couldn't immediately turn a buck. And it's still not too late to change this -- if Jeeves really is in the biz for the longhaul, they could easily decide to pour even a little investment back into this instant-hit brand, and easily beat out every other search engine without even trying. Those little users will pay back big dividends later, if you could take your eyes off the quarterly earnings for just a second to think about it.

I think the biggest travesty of the Jeeves decision though, is this ultimate slap to the face of it's most loyal fans -- the users. They stuck through the worst of times, when the butler spewed out literal garbage, when the Jeeves operations and employees were in complete disarray, when the stock sank below a dollar, when the quality of results reflected the desperate straits that the butler faced. Throughout that time, they stuck with him, even as every possible tweak was applied to the site to wrench more money out, to keep Jeeves afloat a little longer, user-experience be damned. And float he did, borne on the backs of his fans... and like a phoenix, he really did rise out of the ashes, not only improving the situation finacially, but also improving the quality of the service through careful aquisitions, the steady guiding hand of Skip Battle, and the intense labor of the butlers' very loyal employees. In an age where Google's results are constantly getting poorer due to intense spamming by people exploiting the Goliath's page-ranking vulnerabilities, Jeeves results only look better and better in comparison. (I know Google zealots will vehmently disagree, but go ahead, and take both sites through the Pepsi Challenge, and you'll see what I mean)

And what's the way to let the world know this? Certainly not by decapitating the butler. The public explanation that "people MAY associate the butler too much with his old abilities" is absolute rubbish. Do you remember how terrible Yahoo results were once upon a time? Has this hurt them any? People didn't shy away from the butler because he was too jovial or welcoming or friendly, they shied away because Jeeves was always forced to chose paths of poor user experience in order to meet their quarterly bottom line. That annoying search bar at the top of the site that didn't go away when you clicked on results, the mess of ads that would appear before any regular search results in order to squeeze more money out of the site, the decision to spew out answers to a phrase in quotes even if no exact phrase match was found -- these were the things that kept people from adopting Jeeves. Anytime we removed these annoying features, Jeeves traffic would grow.

Alas now, when Google's name is overwhelmingly dominant, such little tweaks may not be enough anymore to topple them -- but why would you need to? For every McDonalds, there's a Burger King. For every Coke, there's a Pepsi. What is wrong with playing the underdog, the scrapper that fiercly guards it's loyal fans, and fights hard to EARN converts? The internet is an expanding place, and it's not expanding amongst the digital elitists, it's expanding amongst the new converts, the easily intimdiated, the ones who want to see a friendly face ready to show them the Way of the Web.

You want to make Jeeves an even bigger success? I can tell you how. Quit blowing all your money on half-baked features and tools that are only shoddy imitations of anything Google or Yahoo can put out. You will never, ever outspend those guys, even with IAC's considerable resources. Google and Yahoo did not get HUGE with bells and whistles. They got huge with their core search abilities, the formula is this:

Get me the BEST answers, and in the process piss off the LEAST amount of users (with ads, revenue tricks, anything that involves useless extra clicks, and the like).

That is the formula, it was applicable then, and it is still applicable now. Sure, do a bit of marketing, but save the majority of your money into tuning your results, making your site as FAST as possible, with your answers as RELEVANT as possible, and strip out any bells and whistles that do nothing to increase the loyalty of your users.

Above all, RESPECT your users, don't kick dirt into their faces by deciding they are too stupid to appreciate their favorite site unless you kill off their favorite mascot. Even if you absolutely MUST follow through with this hare-brained scheme, the least you could do is keep an Ask Jeeves front end up -- it would take minimal resources to simply let people pick which portal they would like better -- the friendly butler? Or the "serious" site? I'm betting on the former, but even if I lose, it would still be foolish to forsake those unique, differentiated, and loyal fans, when it would be a fairly trivial matter to respect them and keep them happy.

I have many more suggestions and insights that I believe could be of value to the executives of IAC and Jeeves, if only they could swallow their pride enough to listen to an unknown former employee and true butler fan (as well as an internet junkie since it's earliest days). I may just be a old voice in a changed company, but quite often it is those the people you least expect, that have the most candid and surprising insights into a company's structure, it's strengths and weaknesses, and it's underlying value. After all, if you make a mistake up at the top -- who's more likely to tell you you're wrong? The adoring sycophants, all jockeying for position and favor amongst the company leaders? Or the guys from the bottom who live and breath the water-cooler talk, who have no possible motive except the betterment of the company? As a former employee, I have even less reason to be guarded in my words, and every reason to tell it how I saw it.

Stay tuned for more, and fans -- sound off! Perhaps if the executives persist on this disastrous course, you - the users - the consumers - the only ones that truly matter, can change their minds (just think back to the famous failed experiment of New Coke for a good example of how this could happen.)