Next Phase of Search Engine Wars

A close friend of mine, just started his own venture after spending over a decade in the banking industry. He still goes to his venture’s web site by going to Google first and then typing his venture’s name in the search bar.

No he is not doing it for some convoluted SEO impact. This is the way he has been going to portals – Go to Google and then type the “name” (not the URL) and “find” the site.

And I am told that many a people follow the same routine. The incremental step (of going to Google etc) is not a hurdle in their minds even when they know the URL.

Well, I wanted to share this to impress upon you as to how Search Engines are now serious gatekeepers of web traffic.
Google has been a clear leader for a long time now and I have been following (trying to understand their approach & rationale) their path of attacking the long tail of search.

Now for the un-initiated, Google made its billions by the auction model embedded into the search engine. This is where a co/trader/individual bids for certain keywords (the ones being searched) and pays for every click. The revenues have been growing very rapidly because of multiple reasons:

  • There was traffic – with Google becoming more of a verb than a noun, there was traffic for most use-cases. With growing internet adoption, each category saw a rapid jump. Maybe some like travel, jobs, real estate, finance, porn, music, entertainment, matrimonials saw a faster growth, but even someone bidding for “2nd hand laptops in Trissur” would get a few leads every now and then. Hence, traffic meant volumes.
  • Clear Context is established – a user searching for Personal Loans in Delhi, is in all probability in the market for one. So most banks/DSAs etc would want to bid for this and get a chance to talk to this guy. Hence, context meant interested relevant prospects and leads.
  • Long tail of supply and demand – unlike Facebook where the inventory to target a particular user is kind of fixed, in a search engine scenario, the inventory is created by the user. Please note, I do not refer to the number of opportunities to talk to a user. That might still be high at Facebook if a user spends a lot of time browsing through multiple profiles and pages. But in case of a search engine, when I search for loan – I am a good target for financial institutes, and when I search for cars, it opens up a whole new category of people to talk to me. All the while maintaining the high relevancy. This also meant, that a small co/user with low budgets operating in a niche category would not always be muscled out by big media spenders. A huge difference over Facebook. This long tail of advertisers is what created the really vibrant marketplace that adwords currently is.

search_enginesWhile all of this was fine, Google and maybe now Bing too, have been trying to grow at a rate faster than the market and they have been adopting a lot of smarts.

  1. Google gave free adwords vouchers to SMEs. This was a neat way to get new advertisers, especially the ones who have never ever used /tested the platform. Since there was traffic, there was an opportunity for these niche players to get visible in their categories, and the product itself was easy to go live on with minimal support. One just needed to have a landing page to divert the click-throughs.
  2. Free/Easy hosting web-sites. I am sure Google would have found that many of its prospects are not continuing with adwords as they do not even have a web presence. They dont want to spend on it. Or maybe some had a presence only on Just Dial, Indiamart etc. By providing users with a template driven, easy to create web sites, Google just expanded the universe for its adwords sales team. Now anyone who had a web site, should be targeted and be on-board with the ad-words program.

All this has clearly worked well for Google. I know a lot of friends from manufacturing and other traditional industrues, who now talk about Google adwords very vividly. But I feel one aspect is still missing.

As I look at it, Google has convinced people on the following:

  • It can get you leads/references – vibrant market place with long tail effects
  • Its easy to create a web-site/landing page if you dont have one – free hosting etc
  • You can easily track campaigns, change them with little overheads – simple DIY approach to adwords
  • It also shares best practices etc on Landing pages/banners to maximise responses – you can improve further

But what is missing is re-inforcing the fact that Google leads convert.

Different businesses have different closure/follow-up cycles and many a times the closures don’t happen because the business/user fails to follow-up efficiently. I am not talking about a comprehensive CRM but a simple way to allow small businesses to track their online leads.

My gut feel is that many businesses try out adwords, but discontinue basis non-qualified feedback on lead quality. If they had access to simple tools to see where the lead went cold, maybe they would see that Google leads are better quality and easier to convert.

My experience has shown me that the real-promise of digital channels is delivered only if the team knows how to follow-up efficiently.

Would we see the future search engines providing an integrated Bidding+Landing Page hosting+ Leads Tracking+ Analytics ?

If everyone treated us like our mobile operators

TataDoCoMos recent ad campaigns have been very powerful, to say the least. Kudos to the agency and the marketing teams who could communicate and highlight the pain-points so well.

Mobile operators

I saw the ad recently and it brought back some recent experiences with the biggest brand of them all – Airtel.  I have done my share of complaining and highlighting it to their customer care, so this is NOT a whining session. This is just an attempt to understand why some of the biggest companies fail to deliver on customer experience.

1.  You are not the focus segment

E.g. SMEs. At our start-up venture where we had a couple of connections , we wanted a few more connections and we were pretty happy to apply for them online. But after speaking to the customer care executive who promised that someone would call us back, we had to end up reaching out to the local DSA.

I guess start-ups (esp in service sector) are not the focus for most service providers (the numbers just dont add up). I had faced similar issues in the banking sector, when we were looking for  employee salary accounts.

My recommendation : All start-up accelerators and angel investors should come together to give business to a guy who will provide basic  services to start-ups (like telecom connections, banking accounts, Payment gateways, HR services , accounting services etc). Or atleast point them in the right direction.

2.  Someone came up with a neat trick

I had the unlimited data-usage plan at home and had not been using the pc/internet at home so much. Thought of calling and downgrading the plan. The first time I called, I asked them what plan I was on and what options did I have. They checked my number and said the system is down so they cannot pull out more info.

It slipped my mind and I called back after 15-20 days. Same story. Then it suddenly stuck me, that both the times I was on hold while the agent checked and it was only after a few seconds that they came back saying system was down.  Do they really want me to believe that their system suddenly goes down whenever a user on the top-end plan asks for available plans. Or is it a smart way to manage the “number of plan down-grades” per month. I am sure someone in their Usage & Retention team gets measured by that metric and not really by “% happy customers who continue to stay happy”.

3. They don’t have a process for this

Our experience with getting a connection discountinued and then being harassed for collections showed us that it wasn’t really anyone’s fault. The collection teams (probably) work independently with little or no real time access to customer accounts. So if they got a base on 3rd of a month, they will keep calling, until it has been removed from the system. They have not identified and defined a solution for those instances where their “usual/typical” scenario is bypassed.

Personally feel, that you can not design for all possible instances on day one. Instead, our systems should evolve and evolve continously, to ensure that each customer use-case is accounted for at an appropriate time.

4. Not every channel is equal

This one I really fail to understand. Why would such a big organization want to cross-sell and up-sell only through DSAs and not through an in-bound channel too. There is just no ownership for any in-bound call that would convert into a sale. I guess the margins all go to the DSA. Guess they don’t want to rock the ship with DSAs bringing in a lions share of their new connections and re-charge.


Conclusion: I firmly believe that there would be a time soon, when new brands and ventures will de-throne the current ones – by just focusing on customer delight. People might even be willing to pay a small premium for that promise.

Where’s the Cupid in our Education System

I was reading this incredible story yday and Dandu bhai’s one line stuck a chord with me – I realized for the first time what it meant to understand concepts and solve problems using first principles (and not by memorizing)

CupidI was immediately back in 1993 when I was getting introduced to the concepts of mechanics during my summer breaks. I was so fascinated with the whole “Laws of Motion” that I – a simple school going kid, using a few equations could predict , how a ball would fly, how far would it go etc. I felt really powerful and special. Thus began my love for Physics. I loved the fact that here was a simple set of tools, which can help make sense of the real world around me. I never felt the same way about Chemistry or Mathematics – they never had the real world appeal that Physics had.  Whether it was this love, which prompted me to be an engineer (or in those days a scientist) , I don’t know. Actually it doesn’t even matter. What matters, is that I found something I could connect with, something I loved and something which loved me back.

Do we all have such a love story?

Have we all had the good fortune to discover a course/topic/subject we really love(d). Many might have had a favourite subject at some point of their academic career, but do they really passionately love that subject. Most people I met don’t. And we cant really blame them for it. Coz most of the times, we have been busy being good enough in all the other subjects.

Many players solving (or creating) many problems

Our Education eco-system  is a very interesting one.Its got a lot of players working in pockets and addressing their own set of challenges . We have our sarkari schools, where attendance is an issue (not just the students, most times its the teachers who are missing). When the quorum does exist, the quality is questionable and hence its so inspiring to read the stories like Dandu’s.

As opposed to them are the private schools- with their rising fees and air conditioned class rooms, they promise to give our kids the tools and knowledge to make a great career.  They seem to be launching pad for admissions into top tier colleges. There is also the whole tuition and coaching industry which has popped up because the long hours spent at school didnt give us enough ammo to ace those competitive exams.

As with schools, colleges also have their own normal distribution – from the really elite tough-to-crack- IITs to those who ask you to dare beyond their better reputed competitors :-).

There are also a whole set of players who ensure that our graduates and post-graduates are more employable. The McKinsey report that identified the employability gap, seems to have encouraged a whole new industry and rightly so. We really need a work-force which is more productive and efficient from day one, given that we depend to heavily on services (contribution towards GDP).

But who’s kindling the love

While there are genuine tangible problems that are being solved by various players I feel whats missing is a platform or a service that can

  • identify in an interesting and intuitive manner, what subjects/streams does an individual align well to. You might love history or geography and I am confident the earlier you find your love, the better it is. Its not just what Phunsuck Wangdu said, but its what Malcolm Gladwell also says indirectly when he talks about his 10,000 hrs principle. If you need to enjoy the fruits of your 10,000 hrs practice, might as well start early and commit to something you love.
  • Allow the love to blossom. I can’t seem to recall which VC had said this but I absolutely agree that our education systems are “fixed time and differential learning” whereas they should be “differential pace and fixed learning” – more so if we want to issue standard certificates to our graduates. We need to allow a student who loves Algebra to do more than whats prescribed for her standard and maybe take it easy on the History lessons. Let that love for Algebra blossom and not let it die because she can’t remember who fought against whom in the Battle of Plassey. Its not about assessment, but about finding the spark.
  • Internet makes this possible. Self learning sites are currently an animated version of the school’s text books, again aimed at better grades. Why not a suite of concepts each with theory, problems, examples, details of varying levels of complexity. If a kid really wants to know, how the earth’s rotation and revolution impact day/night and seasons, lets her decide to what depth her inquisitiveness goes. Lets not say this is enough knowledge for your age, coz we might be killing someone’s first academic love.

The Khan Academy does work towards this, but an ideal platform would have these features:

  • Huge library of concepts, each tagged at the base level to the specific chapters and classes/grades it belongs to
  • Against each concept, would be a structured or tiered “Know More” series. Wherein a student (or even a parent) can choose to either focus on more depth or breadth.  Each such text/test will also have a grading of complexity where a reader can pace herself depending on her comfort levels
  • Let this love show – tell parents what your kid seems to enjoy.  Connect with others who share the same passion. I just heard about 6 awesome kids from Bangalore who made a robot and have finished in top 3 in an international contest. Winning aside, how cool is it for these kids to know and have 5 others in their lives who share his interests and passion for robotics.

Lets build something like this and help more youngsters find something they love.

Your comments/feedback is welcome. Pls do share.


1.  I wonder if this is why there are so few of us who dream or aspire to do fundamental or original research?

Offline to online

Offline to online

Offline + online connect, was and remains an interesting area for internet innovation – simply because in our real-lives we consume most brands, products and services (remove information from this list for a moment) in an offline heavy way.

The real challenge that most brands face is that while these “offline consumers” are heavy consumers of digital inventories (think Google, Facebook, Youtube, emails etc), the brands have no way to know how these  consumers interact with them in reality, or whats the relationship or affinity they have with a particular brand.

One can imagine that the Levis brand manager, would want to have a different communication with someone, who has been buying a Levis for last 6 years as against a young teenager who aspires to buy her first pair with her first salary.

The ecommerce and other online players have it much easier, esp with “retargeting” becoming the buzz word. A consumer sees an inventory item and logs-off without making a purchase. The re-targeting ninjas help the portal connect with her again across a whole network of sites.Most players believe this should increase conversions.

Imagine the power a brand’s online communication could have, if they could re-target a customer acquired or serviced  in the real-offline world.

Interesting eh?


The Digital Insurer

Going Digital is no longer a choice that insurers have, its something they need to do and now. What insurers need to understand is how to embrace digital in their individual markets and what goals to strive for in each phase of the roll-out.

Given below is a collection of articles & essays I have written on specific issues that Insurers need to comprehend while going the digital way.

  • What is the opportunity for the digital insurer ?
  • How to build a digital insurer strategy ?
  • The digital agent
  • Building the digital infrastructure
  • Getting the organization ready for digital adoption

Next phase of digital marketplaces

Internet adoption has seen the evolution of some usual suspects across most geographies and one of the key category is that of Digital Marketplaces. A portal which successfully brings together the supply and demand side forces together.  In India we have seen the growth of such marketplaces for jobs (Naukri, Monster etc) , marriages (Bharatmatrimony), finance (Deal4loans, BimaDeals etc),deals (SnapDeal) and so on.

Its interesting to see how most of these have evolved over the years and in this post I attempt to see where they might be headed in the future.

Phase 1: Information collation + Listings

The early phase for most marketplaces begins with bringing a sufficient number of suppliers and promoting the portal to get consumers (demand side forces). And the key attribute in this phase is that the portal has the most comprehensive listing in that category. Data which is fresh and probably not available anywhere else. So Naukri in its first avatar was just a listing of openings available- a digital version of what people used to browse in magazines and newspapers.

Phase 2: Customization, filtering, meaningful handshakes

In the next phase a marketplace sees the need for tools that would help consumers connect directly to people who are most relevant. This might be done by better profiling, filters, trend based suggestions etc. Idea is that the consumer (& maybe the supplier also) should not waste too much time going through all profiles to get to the one(s) that are most relevant. Job portals have a meaningful profiling section to filter profiles. Marriage portals have gone to the level of checking Manglik/Preferred cuisines of prospective grooms/brides. I was also told about one where if you saw a photo, you could see other profiles with “similar” photos. While the marriage filters might sound too extreme 🙂 but there is a general perception that these tools bring clear value to the users.

When we launched Deal4Loans, we decided to focus in at this level directly. We invested in a warm body process to call our customers and understand what they specifically wanted. We then applied our understanding of the space to match the requirements with loan providers and did a handshake between the loan seeker and the providers.

What next: Managing the need

While most digital marketplaces have grown because they become the go-to-places for getting handshakes. Most of them have become so big, that its still an overwhelming experience for the consumer. Maybe thats why some of the marriage portals have launch a premiere service , where you get a relationship manager to do all the ground work.

The bigger problem is that in most cases, no one is tracking whether the customer’s need got fulfilled or not. Take the example of jobs. We are looking to expand our team in the new start-up. We will come up with ads on Naurki and Monster etc, but no one will help us see this requirement get closed. We will get CVs, we would call and shortlist them etc. But did we find our next team member? Do we have some special requirements?

Look at our loans business. We do the handshakes and we do it better than any one else in the industry. But we are not yet checking if the consumer’s requirement got serviced (incase it was serviceable). I personally feel, the industry will gradually demand this out of most evolved digital marketplaces, and the ones who invest early on will see increased user traction.

Corporate Culture Localization

Many global companies have adopted an approach of customizing their products to suit the local needs. McDonalds came up with some Indian burgers to suit the desi palate, Suvidha was Citibank’s experiment at serving the unique Indian market, General Motors shifted the driving wheel from left to right (and forgot to move the wiper and dipper sticks).And HSBC took this as their brand positioning with the World’s Local Bank punchline.

Source: TSK Designs
Source: TSK Designs

Many others across industries have seen success with such an adoption.And it sounds logical coz you are trying to identify the specific needs of the market and churning out something that talks to the consumers, that says that “hey, we understand you. We hear you and have built something just for you.”

But its surprising that these same companies fail to customize and serve their internal customers- the local employees. I have heard so many cases of a sheer culture mismatch, of the parent US/European culture being forced into the Indian arm so that it feels like one seamless unit. Unfortunately, it doesnt work that way. The recent firings at some of the MNC companies has brought this issue to the foreground.

I heard of two young managers who came back from a sales call during the evening to find their access cards are not working at the reception. Someone came down to tell them that their services have been terminated and they could no longer enter the premises. Wow !

Another team was called into a conference room and told they were being let go. The secretary staff was asked to clear their desks and send the stuff down. The team itself was escorted out directly from the conference room. Wow again ! What were the HR managers and business heads thinking?

India is not the West. Our people have a different set of parameters to judge whether they are being treated well or not. And if the local business heads fail to stand up and protest against these Standard Global Corporate policies (apparently the two above are instances of the co’s standard firing policies) they would lose their positioning in the job marketplace.

I can confidently say that people who know about the above two companies, will not flock to these organizations when the job market looks better.

Celebrity Endorsements Work

Djoker has a serious business impact
Djoker has a serious business impact

Had a very interesting chat with the guy who runs the sports-shop at the Sports Complex where I go for my regular squash. I noticed that Nadal and Federer were no longer there on his wall and all one could see were Djokovic posters with his Head racquets. One would be tempted to ask whether the change in fortunes at the recent Opens triggered some change in the brands the customers bought.

And it surely was the case – Babolat is no longer being stocked and its Head all the way. I remember not so long ago, that every one at the complex was using Babolat raquets( well you couldnt blame them, Nadal was on a rampage) with their hard-to-miss two white lines on the frame. But interestingly this phenomenon transcends only to the equipment not to apparel. It seems what most of these aspiring or hobby-athletes wear are still their favourite Nikes and Addidas.

So is it that an aspiring athlete wants to give himself the very best of equipment? Does the same phenomenon work across other segments like say watches and mobiles?

Will someone want to buy the same mobile that Aamir or Priyanka endorse? By the above logic, maybe not, but am sure there are other consumer psychology attributes that we missed in our chat yday at the complex.

Loss making airlines and profitable aggregators

The Indian skies are witnessing a strange situation. Most of the carriers who form the backbone of Indian aviation industry are suffering from huge operating losses – from a combined effect of lower ticket pricing and increasing fuel costs – or so they claim.

The ticket selling sites like MakeMyTrip,Yatra etc on the other hand seem to have it pretty good. Though a big chunk of their revenues now comes from tours and hotel bookings but one fails to understand why the airlines still depend so heavily on them. There was a time (the pre internet explosion era) when you needed a lot of agents to sell tickets to ensure the seats were almost full, but now when each airline has its own site why do we let the customers use the internet channel to book through an aggregator.

A customer does this because there is an ease of comparison and the ability to easily find the lowest price or most convenient combo etc across multiple airlines. I am told that aggregators are smart at predicting the traffic they would see on their portals and tend to bulk buy seats (atleast on busy sectors) well in advance. This ensured that the customer was getting a decent price for his seat on the aggregator. Low price + convenience is a very compelling proposition for users.

Fast forward to today. If as an airline, I am not recovering my operating costs per flight, should I not look at transitioning my sales to in-house channels. A drastic cancellation of this channel is not possible as it would lead to a sudden drop in ticket-sales and hence the occupancy rates. BUT why can’t the airlines start a campaign which says for best prices book directly on their own sites. This would atleast start getting them those customers who don’t value the convenience as much as the price differential. These customers might start using the aggregators to search for the best options and finally book the tickets on the airline site.

I also know of some people who travel on sectors like Delhi-Guwahati, take a particular airline always, but still book it at an aggregator site.


Education Industry – next set of challenges

Private sector, higher education in India has probably seen a complete cycle of sorts in the last 8-10 years. What started as a gold rush with students willing to pay super premium amounts to get a MBA/Engg/Medical degree, now seems to have hit a major reality check. Institutes are now finding it difficult to get students, students who are graduating are not getting placement offers (atleast not at the expected grade and salary levels) and there is a clear dearth of good faculty.

Education Industry ChallengesIn the early days, the institutes were playing catch-up with the increasing demand for employees in the services sector. Since there was a healthy pool of faculty to be tapped into, the quality of education was also not compromised. But now, with almost every successful business and businessman having a private college, the demand-supply metrics are completely reversed.

The story is really drastic as far as MBA institutes go. Most are unable to fill their seats. Even if they do, they struggle to find good faculty. In the absence of good faculty, the placements and the long term brand value of the institute suffers. Most students have not done a real summer internship and are unable to handle themselves in any job-interview. There is a clear shake-up about to happen, if things don’t change.

As I was thinking about what changes could bring back the zing, I asked myself a very fundamental question- Why does a b-school need its own campus ?

While some of you are thinking already that I have gone crazy, lemme share with you why I am asking this. I feel the core problem with quality of education is the lack of experienced faculty and administration. The current economics don’t allow a private Bschool to hire a good full time faculty member. Most professors have a few areas of focus and they don’t teach more than a couple of courses. This means that if they are not doing consulting assignments or taking MDP courses, they are not financially contributing to the institute for most of their work hours. This would either force the institute to pay them a meagre salary (which would de-motivate the most critical element of the education system) or ask them to be on a part-time basis. (And yes, this is a problem of scale. At campuses with multiple batches of the same course, its easier to afford full-time faculty members.)

The part time professor also on his part cannot sign-up with multiple institutes as the commute and logistics would be very taxing. Now imagine a scenario where we do away with face-to-face lectures (very radical step I would assume) or we create a university like common campus where multiple institutes share space. They have their own administration, , admission process, fee structure, course outlines and industry interface etc BUT dip into a largely common pool of shared faculty conducting classes at a shared campus.

The way such a MBA park could work is that the park management does the course scheduling and informs the students about which room to report to for which lecture. Accordingly the faculty is also scheduled with a right balance between the daily hours for both of them. The individual institutes have their small management, which pays fees for using the infrastructure and for the faculty (directly or through the park). They could in fact choose from a wider set of faculty options for each subject.

Such an arrangement removes most of the inefficiencies in the system, but brings about a whole new set of branding related issues. How would an institute create its own unique identity in such a cluttered environment. While I am not sure that a MBA park or a virtual classroom is the best answer, but I think we would need to start challenging some of the very basic assumptions of our education system very soon.