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Being Cool is Hard

Everywhere I looked on Monday, there was Cuil.

Pronounced “cool,” the search provider made its public debut this week and got enough ink to make an octopus jealous. I read stories about Cuil in/on The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The New York Times, Forbes, a blog on The Los Angeles Times, TechCrunch.com and CNET News.com, among others. Most of the initial press concentrated on Cuil’s claim that it indexes more pages than other search engines and that its founders, a wife-and-husband team, are former employees of Google, the clear current leader in the search space.

Considering all the hype, I was unimpressed by Cuil after spending a good 45 minutes trying to test it out … trying because the search engine simply did not work at times and was maddeningly so slow at other times that I kept glancing at my cable modem wondering whether I’d lost connectivity.

When Cuil did work, I was impressed by how the company displayed search results and some other bells and whistles, but I was disappointed that a search for my company’s name yielded results that made no sense. Our own website was nowhere to be found in the first ten pages of results and our company name is so specific that any reference to it – anywhere – is a direct reference to our actual company.

Technology bloggers were quick to point out Cuil’s strengths and weaknesses. Some fawned over the company and its technology, while others dismissed it.

Richard MacManus of ReadWriteWeb was the person whose views I felt most accurately reflected my own.

“The fact is, Cuil is a very ordinary product right now. In my own tests last night, I was left underwhelmed. Our official post today summed up our views: this is an average product that does not live up to its own hype, the NYT’s hype, or the hype bestowed upon it by noted bloggers and those who thought they got a ‘scoop’,” MacManus wrote.

“I still don’t get it though – how come this startup got blanket coverage from tech news heavyweights, some of whom should know better than to buy into the hype? Did any of those publications actually test Cuil before writing up its greatness?” he concluded.

MacManus, whether he knows it or not, exposed the good and the bad of Cuil’s public relations strategy.

The good was the company’s ability to generate “blanket coverage from tech news heavyweights” as well as general news and business news publications. Whomever planned Cuil’s PR launch did a fabulous job of securing coverage. The articles covering the product launch were all on-message, portraying Cuil as an innovative upstart ready to challenge its founders’ former employer. The David vs. Goliath angle played out beautifully and the media was hand-delivered a compelling story.

The bad was that the product didn’t live up to the hype. This was made clear not only by the fact that the product didn’t work on Monday, but also by the follow-up coverage from bloggers and other media outlets. The resounding sentiment was that Cuil, while sort of cool, is nowhere close to rivaling Google.

The most pressing issue for Cuil at this point is ensuring that its product doesn’t “break” again. Company representatives admitted on Tuesday that they were surprised by the amount of press and the subsequent rash of users. This excuse might fly for a small company, but Cuil has millions in venture capital backing up its business, and that business is supposed to be providing millions of users with the capability to search billions of documents.

Cuil now also has to deal with users like me, those who were disappointed with their experience. The press I read was convincing enough to get me to try Cuil, but now it’s going to take a lot more to get me to go back. This is a real shame since my job is research and I’m always on the lookout for new search tools. I have no clue when I’ll visit Cuil next, but I didn’t bother to bookmark the website.

Based on my experience, Cuil was not ready for primetime. A softer launch would have spared the company the bad press that came after the initial flurry of ink and it would have also allowed the company to garner more user feedback under the radar. Most important, it would have helped Cuil avoid the technology problems that plagued it on Monday.

When you’re on the public relations end of a product launch, it’s important to understand the product development process and be aware of challenges that a hard launch may impose on the product. It’s not an issue for Apple to launch a new iPhone and not be able to meet consumer demand because the company is manufacturing a now-iconic product that has such tremendous demand that news of a new shipment of phones creates lengthy lines. (The lack of supply, or scarcity of product, is also part of the company’s PR campaign.) It is an issue when your product is web-based and you can’t keep the servers up.

Three years ago, when my company launched its flagship product, we did so in stages. We first invited a group of people to beta-test the product for several months, then we quietly began selling the product. We waited until we were very comfortable with the product and the product development process before we would even publicly talk about what we were doing.

“We’re not ready to get press yet,” I wrote in an email to a co-worker after our beta stage. “We need to fix some bugs and get to the point where someone in the media using the product isn’t going to come back with a question we can’t answer or a problem with the product that should have been solved months ago. We’ll know we’re ready.”

If only Cuil knew when it was ready.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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