By any traditional measurement Cuil.com saw an amazing PR launch. Positive articles appeared everywhere, traffic came rolling in, people were talking on the boards. Several people IM’d me to try it out, stopping me in the hallway to ask my opinion, etc.
The problems started with what came next. Those same people who said "did you try it out?" usually finished the converastion with "I wasn’t impressed." The online discussions have been brutal, attacking Cuil at every step, from the search results to the fact that the server crashed due to the traffic. Even the name itself is under attack.
If you’re going to try to topple the king of search, which most of the Cuil.com articles suggested is the goal, you need to come with more than just a big library. But that’s the search technology and frankly, I’m a not an expert in that area. I do know, however, that challenging Google means getting people to change their habits, and that doesn’t happen with a one day boost. You need chatter, interest and a long-term strategy.
When a client comes to us with a consumer launch I usually suggest a relatively long closed beta, something that is at least a few months. Then listen to the feedback they’re getting on the blogs and in the discussion board, respond to any issues that come up and be prepared to do the coding necessary to make any fixes.
In many cases this idea gets rejected, not because it’s wrong, but because other business factors (such as investors, competition, etc.) force the company to put out the product immediately and not wait for the closed beta. Essentially they’ve come to us too late, not hiring the PR firm until they needed the coverage.
The closed beta does two things: it helps build viral buzz and it allows the site to get a pretty good test group so it can work out the kinks. The fact that most people chatting about Cuil.com complain that the results just aren’t good or accurate is something that could have been fixed during the closed beta. If the bloggers and reporters were briefed, but not put under embargo, then they could have written about it, built the buzz and then general users would have had to wait until launch day to access.
Cuil.com has a lot of work to do in order to take on Google. I’m sure they prepared for the long haul, but now they also have a deep hole and will have to climb out.