The hallmark of a successful company is competitive paranoia. At least, that’s what companies such as Microsoft and Google would have us believe.
Bill Gates is famous for his fear of being outsmarted, as is Google co-founder Sergei Brin. Google is all too aware that the competition is simply a click away.
Take a look at the brand-extension unfolding at Fort Google in Silicon Valley. Standing atop Google’s search engine shoulders are a raft of services from Google News, to the shopping engine Froogle, Google Answers, AdWords, the Blogger weblog engine, and most recently the controversial free email service Gmail.
Google’s plan to offer 1GB of free email storage is intriguing because the company plans to deliver targeted advertising by searching the contents of your email.
But while the privacy advocates and Google management continue their battle, the search industry last week (April 14) discovered that Web giant Amazon.com also wants a piece of the search pie.
A new wholly-owned subsidiary called A9.com jumped onto our screens in beta form, boasting a raft of cool new features including search history, a funky new toolbar with pop-up blocker, and the ability to search through individual pages of a book.
What makes A9.com different to the search engine riff-raff, including Google, is the extent to which it’s leveraging personal information, and establishing a relationship with us that’s intricately tied to our hip pocket.
For example, in order to use the toolbar, and enable the user search history feature, you need to sign in using your Amazon.com account. If you, like me, regularly forget online passwords, then you will need to recover this one by entering the last five digits of the credit card, plus the zip code last used to purchase something at Amazon.com. That’s right, A9.com and Amazon.com share the same back-end processing system.
Meanwhile, the End User License Agreement (EULA) for A9’s toolbar supports that idea: “Because A9.com is a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon.com, A9.com is able to correlate information it collects with personally identifiable information that Amazon.com has, and Amazon.com has access to information collected by A9.com. Among other things, A9.com and Amazon.com use this information to customise, personalise, and otherwise improve the services they provide to you."
It doesn’t take too much brain power to realise that these “other things” are directly related to a host of marketing, and sales-related activities that will eventually work their way into your conscience, and wallet, at some point.
Here’s another commercial hook. If you want to view specific pages using A9’s Inside a Book feature, the site asks you to enter your credit card details, promising you won’t be charged (at least not right at that moment).
Contrast all this with the amount of personal information I've given rival Google over the years: zero, zip, nada.
And so it’s easy to see how Google’s fear of abandonment could become reality. Although I suspect people will not so much abandon Google as find themselves subtly drawn away by Amazon’s stickiness.
So when it comes to building your business on the Web, effective exploitation of customer information has now become the Holy Grail.
Using Google and A9 as a barometer for how we should treat the Web, it’s easy to realise that we must understand our customer’s online usage habits.
The next step, however, is to use this information to predict and influence customer buying habits.
A little sinister? Perhaps. But mining customer data is the Internet’s new currency, and A9’s Google one-upmanship proves a little healthy paranoia could take you a long way.
Mark Jones is the deputy managing director of IDG Communications Australia. He is a former editor-in-chief of ARN, and most recently worked in the US as InfoWorld's executive news editor. His regular column in ARN will dissect the manoeuvres of leading technology vendors. Read his technology, media and marketing musings at http://filtered.typepad.com/markjones.