Is Demographic Search Smart Business?

Chris and I engaged in a lively discussion via Skype this morning regarding the merits of Rushmore Drive, a new search engine targeted to African-Americans. I heard about it from SheGeeks, who stated quite clearly how she feels about the service. Especially after hearing Rushmore Drive is under the same corporate umbrella as Ask.com, my immediate reaction was also one of dismissal and “what the hell are they thinking?” You may remember my own rant a couple of months ago about Ask’s development of a search engine targeted to suburban women in the Midwest. My point then – that the path to search success lies in broadening rather than narrowing your audience – holds true with Rushmore Drive. Assuming a group of people wants results from a limited pool denegrates the audience and simply doesn’t hold water.

Chris isn’t necessarily a fan of these sites either but she can’t help but put her experienced analyst hat on and deliver some opposing points. Her argument is that engines like Rushmore are serving a viable subset within a demographic that vehemently holds on to that demographic as their identity. There are enough of those subsets in any demographic to create a business; the question of how big that business is remains to be answered. She concluded by allowing that there are some issues she might turn to a women’s site over a general one, assuming they’ll have better information, i.e., health-related such as breast cancer, pregnancy, or menopause.

It’s easy to deliver emotional responses to such a model, as it’s inherently personal. That, after all, is the intended effect of the engines. Unable to differentiate algorithmically from the Google way of search, these companies are instead aiming to add a personal layer. If I can’t necessarily deliver a better search result to you, dear user, I’ll try appealing to your gut. Who are you and with whom do you identify? It’s a philosophical/psychological approach and it’s risky. To work effectively, the engine must excise some results and/or bring others to the fore. Who’s making that determination? Can one possibly write an algorithm to home in on female or African-American search results? I doubt it and I think that’s the point.

Technology should be blind to race, gender and creed. If you want to appeal to a demographic, create a destination site. Pack it to the hilt with what you think are appropriate links and material and let it be sourced by a general search engine. But the very nature of search is and should be egalitarian. Attempting to attract certain groups of people by rearranging their search results is, at best, touting a product for what it doesn’t do. And that to me, seems bad business.

What do you think?

4 Comments »

  1. Corvida said

    You summed up why I was so angry so nicely in the conclusion. Glad you included Chris’ perspective on the situation. Really helped me understand why they might’ve created Rushmore.

  2. martin said

    What this appears to be is a site which is a frontend for google / ask / doesn’t matetr who, with the equivalent of some google CSE’s on particular topics, which has been marketed to hell and back.

  3. stepwinder said

    I think it’s important we not let the labels of a ethnic-based or gender-based search or even a particular site soak up too much of the dialog. The question of tech being blind to race, gender, or creed is the crux of the issue.

    A commitment to a net that’s egalitarian in nature is essential to understanding the outrage here as well as net neutrality. No one or no entity should be making the decisions that narrow access. We all have access to tools like FriendFeed, Socialthing, etc. to narrow our focus on the web according to our own preferences.

    I don’t doubt my experience in the world as a woman has shaped some of those preferences but few algorithms could make sense of my boyish middle school sense of humor!

  4. GS said

    I agree that trying to isolate folks based on ethnicity, gender… etc. is certainly the reverse direction in the goal of equality. Most importantly if you are targeting a specific community – ensure you consult with members of it, as you risk offending those within that target (and outside of it in the case below – I doubt this multi-link will last long but checkout what happens when you search for ‘Rushmore Drive’ on Google. )…

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=rushmore+drive&btnG=Google+Search&aq=2&oq=rushmore

    This is the astonishingly offensive result in the SERP w/the 8 multi-links added based on top category hubs (are you kidding me? Bad move Ask – signup for Google Webmaster tools and pull those down!):

    RushmoreDrive Discover more here.
    RushmoreDrive is a first-of-its-kind search engine for the Black community. We deliver a blend of mainstream search results plus a layer of more relevant …
    http://www.rushmoredrive.com/ – 112k – Cached – Similar pages

    “Nigger” Album
    Job Networks
    Win a lease for a 2009 Range …
    Obama and Ludacris
    Slavery by Another Name
    Steve Harvey
    About Us
    Swimsuits

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