Once Foundem.com was available to everyone, the company’s honeymoon lasted precisely two days. During its first 48 hours, the Raffs saw a rush of traffic from users typing product queries into Google and other search engines. But then, suddenly, the traffic stopped. Alarmed, Adam and Shivaun began running diagnostics. They quickly discovered that their site, which until then had been appearing near the top of search results, was now languishing on Google, mired 12 or 15 or 64 or 170 pages down. On other search engines, like MSN Search and Yahoo, Foundem still ranked high. But on Google, Foundem had effectively disappeared. And Google, of course, was where a vast majority of people searched online.
The Raffs wondered if this could be some kind of technical error, so they began checking their coding and sending email to Google executives, begging them to fix whatever was causing Foundem to vanish. Figuring out whom to write, and how to contact them, was a challenge in itself. Although Google’s parent company bills itself as a diversified firm with about 80,000 employees, almost 90 percent of the company’s revenues derive from advertisements, like the ones that show up in search. As a result, there are few things more important to Google’s executives than protecting the firm’s search dominance, particularly among the most profitable kinds of queries, such as those of users looking to buy things online. In fact, at about the same time the Raffs were starting Foundem.com, Google executives were growing increasingly concerned about the threats that vertical-search engines posed to Google’s business.