How It Should Work: In-World Search

I get dinged a lot by folks that insist I’m nothing but a doom-sayer. They routinely box me about the ears claiming I never say anything positive or beneficial, and that all my negative ranting does nothing good for anyone. I have a different view of course, or I’d probably not post so many negative rants … but fair is fair and I do like to give equal time to all viewpoints. (Even those that are wrong cuz they disagree with me. *grin* just kidding)

Sometime back I posted a few blogs under the category called “The Project to Save Second Life”. Well it’s time to contribute at least another one, and maybe a few more depending on how the muse feels. Tonight’s entry is about In-World Search in Second Life and how it should work (in my ever-so-humble opinion).

The Opening Premise – In-World Search Is A Tool

So here’s the starting premise, In-World Search is not provided as a basic feature of a Virtual World nor is it even provided as a nicety. It is instead a tool, a very specific tool meant to be used by a very specific audience … errr, audiences … because it has two. I start from here because this seems to be the first stepping stone in the path that leads to a beneficial implementation of Search, and it’s also a premise that most techno-weenies seem to miss. (And before you get your Java in a bind, I’m a techno-weenie too, so I have a right to use that term … of endearment.)

What type of tool is Search? Who are the audiences? To answer those, I’ll have to digress a bit and provide some foundation history, so please bear with me if this seems like old hat. I promise I’ll do my best to tie it all up in short order.

Why Is Second Life “Different”?

This is perhaps one of the more hotly debated questions floating around the Virtual World community these days. While there are many ongoing debates about the future of 3D Virtual Worlds, long-reaching theories about how humanity will be altered by their impact, on and on, blah de blah. All neat stuff, but not a one of them looks at what it is about Second Life … today’s Second Life … that separates it from all the also-ran VW Grids. Yet the answer is one that is so close to our noses that most people probably can’t see it. (Although some of the competing Grids have decided to somewhat attempt duplicating the reason, not a one of them has really taken it seriously as of yet … near as I can tell.)

Commerce. Yup, that’s right. Good old fashioned, money grubbing, profit generating, capitalistic Commerce. The active exchange of legal tender for goods or services. Bidness dood! It’s what greases the wheels of Second Life and (in case you weren’t really paying attention) the Internet too. While a lot of people will claim that sex is what really kicked the Internet into high gear, the real reason sex sold was because, well DUH! It SOLD! There was money to make in sex, and where there’s money to be made, there are creative, inventive, dedicated and downright persistent people willing to try most anything to make some of that money for themselves.

The really confusing thing for me to comprehend is … what on Earth caused a guy like Philip Rosedale (AKA Philip Linden) to put a functioning Commerce Engine into Second Life? I mean be serious here, the business ventures that he’s gotten involved in all revolved around “feel good” type concepts, and traditionally those things are meant to run on good will, not on moolah. So what prompted him and his team to put a money machine into Second Life? Well, whatever the reason, it’s done and it’s entrenched and … miracle of miracles … it’s also what has made Second Life a success.

Second Life is a Success?

Yes, indeed it is. Oh sure it has its cycles of up and down. And yes, it’s not exactly the high-flying darling child of the Investment Community like it was a few years back. But when it comes to Virtual Worlds in general, there is not another Virtual World out there that actually has an active and dedicated customer base like Second Life. Even the doom-sayers stick around. Even those that have fled have kept one eye on Second Life. And even those that just flat walked away often come back, albeit a bit less wild-eyed about the possibility they’ll take over the world or some such crazy idea. If you measure success by the dedication and persistence of the customer base, Second Life definitely qualifies.

But it’s much more than pure rabid dedication. While they’ve stopped posting the numbers, it’s well known that there are people within Second Life that derive a full living wage from their participation in the commerce of Second Life. They’re not people that you would traditionally think of as “Information Workers” either. They’re your basic run-of-the-mill human beings, engaged in creating and selling Virtual Goods. The mere fact that they can derive a living wage from that effort is something that should open people’s eyes to the possibility of Virtual Goods sales. (But then again, sex over the Internet was just another form of a Virtual Good .. or Virtual Bad .. depending on your point of view. *grin*)

So a success it is. Second Life has succeeded not only in the realm of generating an income for people (not counting the folks with paychecks drawn on Linden Lab’s bank account), but it has survived for quite a few years. It continues to survive too, even in the face of rather pointed and well-reasoned arguments that it’s on its way down and out. People still keep logging in, still keep building, socializing, buying and selling … and doing just whatever the heck it is they do here.

Can Second Life Fail?

Yup, sure can. In fact, eventually some day it will cease to exist. But with all things alive (and if nothing else, Second Life truly is a living being), it will die faster if its caretakers fail to understand what keeps it nourished. The nourishment that Second Life needs is a complicated mix. Part innovation, part stability, part random happenstance … and a big part grease. Grease that keeps the wheels turning, keeps the customer interest focused. Grease that slops over, in and through everything and permeates into every nook and cranny.¬†Grease in the form of money. Grease called “Commerce”.

The Basic Commerce Tools

One of the amazing things about commercial ventures that grow out of a fertile environment is that the promulgators of that commerce will somehow manage to invent or concoct the most amazing and creative ways of getting things done. I know I keep harping on the Internet Sex industry, but those folks are the ones that created live video streaming, Voice Over IP, monetary transactions over the wire, and all the other basic tools the “Legitimate” commercial market uses today. If it wasn’t for your basic HNG wanting to ogle some lovely jigglies, you can well bet we’d still be working on how to get pictures of ourselves across the Internet.

But underneath that is the understanding that commercial ventures in general need some basic tools. Things like a way to deliver their goods, a way to collect the money for their goods, and a way to attract people to pay the money for those goods. Remove any one of those basic tools and the system of commerce comes to a screeching halt. So if you hope to keep commerce going, you need to make sure you don’t impede or restrict those tools. In fact, if you’re smart and really understand what you’re doing, you’ll find ways to make those tools even easier to use and more effective in their use.

So lets formalize them a bit. Here is the list of basic tools in plain language, just so it’s clear:

  1. Delivery of Goods or Services to the Customer
  2. Collection of Money Paid to Purchase the Goods or Services
  3. Presentation of those Goods and Services to Potential Customers

(All you marketing and merchandising geeks out there that are positively twitching in your chairs because I have those in reverse order .. just simmer down. I know they’re backwards, but I did it for a reason. Now hush!)

Number Three Is Really Number One

In the above list, I put “Presentation” last … #3. But if you are paying attention (or if you’ve got a sheepskin in one of the disciplines that studies such things) you’ll be thinking that really my #3 is actually the first and foremost important step in the commerce process. You’d be right too. Getting the eye of the customer is the most important and most crucial step in selling your goods or services. It’s really a “Duh!” kind of thing too. If you don’t have customers, it doesn’t matter one bit how you collect the money or deliver the goods because … there’s no one to pay you and no one to accept delivery. So how come I have to go through this long-winded path to say this?

Attracting Customers in Second Life

Points #1 and #2 are fairly well implemented in Second Life. Those people with no scripting ability can use “Sell From A Prim” vendors just by turning on the “For Sale” option and setting the price. Those with more sophisticated needs have available full sales and records-keeping systems that can automate and simplify even the most intricate commerce machine. But when it comes to point #3 … there ain’t Jack Diddly.

Now I’m not saying that Second Life (and by extension Linden Lab) should provide ready-made Marketing and Advertising tools free of charge. In fact, I absolutely expect them to make money from the tools and services they provide. It’s the same basic principle as the people that lease Retail Store space or print and deliver advertising flyers; they’re in business to make money, and their chosen method to make money is by providing a service to other companies that are in business to make money. So by all rights, Linden Lab should make a decent income from the tools they provide to the businesses within Second Life.

But here’s where the train goes off the tracks and where I start to wonder what it is exactly that Linden Lab thinks keeps their wunderkind Second Life operating … they keep hobbling and ignoring Point #3. The few times they have actually attempted something, it’s been such an anemic and timid attempt that the potential buying public did a double-take and then decided they didn’t really mean it after all.

In fact, their most recent foray into actually using their awesome power to promote themselves and their Commercial Success Stories (the Ozimals fiasco) was so one-sided that it did more damage than good. I’d be willing to bet that if you cornered the folks at Ozimals about the net effects of their email campaign, they’d tell you their sales went DOWN as a result. Maybe I’m a bit confused about how marketing campaigns are supposed to work, but I always believed they were supposed to improve and increase sales and exposure, not damage your reputation and decrease customer response.

The Dangers of Being the Provider

The outcome and response to the Ozimals adventure should have been obvious to anyone that bothered to think it through. Linden Lab is the central authority, the Final Judge if you will, to any and every business within Second Life. As such, they have a very fine line they must walk to prevent the appearance of favoritism. When they used their email machine to advertise a single company and did not provide that same opportunity to the 100’s of other businesses that could probably afford such an effort, they walked into a minefield literally chock full of “Shame On You” land mines. So … lesson learned … don’t do THAT again!

What Linden Lab really needs is a tool, a mechanism that can be used by virtually anyone of any size within Second Life to promote their business venture. They need something that everyone can participate in for a very small nominal fee. It should also be scalable so people with more money to spend to promote their business can gain better exposure, but it should have a reasonable cap on that expense so it can’t be wholly monopolized by the “Big Cats”. It has to be visible to every potential customer within Second Life … even better if it can be integrated into the Viewer in some fashion. And if they can figure out a way to make it “feel” like an essential part of the platform, that would be ideal.

Hmmm … gosh, those are tough requirements. What possible solution could there be?¬†(Okay, okay .. stop looking at me like that. I was being facetious on purpose. LOL)

It’s Called In-World Search

The tool already exists. It’s built-in to the Viewer. It can be utilized by anyone for a very small weekly fee. Those businesses with a bit of extra coin to spend can utilize their resources to advance their rank in Search (using various SEO techniques). And it comes wrapped in a pretty package that most everyone would be willing to use because In-World Search helps you find stuff … or at least it’s supposed to work that way. Unfortunately, with all their monkeying around with the tool, they’ve successfully killed customer confidence in it, shaken business confidence in its use, and overall rendered it useless as anything other than a source of ire and discontent.

In the next installment of this rather long-winded post, I will go into the ways that Linden Lab can actually reshape In-World Search to be of benefit to their customers, and put an end to the discontent and rancor that has heralded their efforts over the past year.

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    […] In Part 1 (How It Should Work: In-World Search) I went through a rather extensive justification for why In-World Search is a Tool to be used by […]