Tragedy of the Uncommons

Today, I will show you how choosing good keywords for your website can forestall competitors entering your market.

Have you ever noticed those little utilities and niche softwares that invariably seem to evolve more than once, even in open source, and especially in the small shareware vendor market (where “small” refers to the size of the business, not the market)?

Here’s an example:

  1. AppZapper (commercial)
  2. AppDelete (freeware)
  3. AppCleaner (freeware)

They all do the same thing. They remove applications and associated files from Mac OS X. Spring Cleaning incidentally has been doing this for longer than any of them. (For further examples, try this and this.)

Is this simply an example of a “me too” program, like localised versions of popular web apps like facebook and twitter (niches work, too), where a third party is trying to cut in on the dough? I don’t necessarily think so, since in the above example, two of the apps are free. Unless we’re going to assume that there are particularly zealous individuals out there who will go a long way just for an app to be available for free (remember, if you consent, it’s not slavery!), we’ll have to look for another explanation.

Let’s look at the amount of information available to agents in this system. Everyone has access to the information that there is functionality missing from the computer. But does group B know that group A is also already working on a solution? Quite plausibly not. How likely is one small team of programmers to hear of another working on a similar application, especially given that one of them may have decided to work in “stealth mode”? Not very likely?

But let’s not forget the consumer. John goes looking for an application that will remove his programs completely. Which will he find first? And if it does what he wants, he’ll stop looking. And so even John, the consumer, will remain unaware of the choice he could have exercised, between a commercial and free variant, in this case. And several companies can continue to exist alongside each other in little niches, each slowly building their own network of customers, mutually exclusive with the other. Until some magazine picks up on the fact and publishes a comparative review article. The situation would be different, of course, if VC money and heavy marketing were involved, but that’s unlikely for niche software that doesn’t do anything hugely clever and isn’t targeting a growing market.

How can this dilemma be solved? Well, eventually search engines will become sufficiently clever to know that when you’re looking for “remove programs”, an answer to “delete apps” will also satisfy you. (Which, btw, isn’t really that hard, which I can say because I have a solution; I suspect Google does, too.) Until that happens, only diligently seeking for every possible keyword to put on your website will help you. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a selfish endeavour, and your own effort makes your gain.

Update 1 February 2008: I forgot to mention AppTrap , CleanApp and Yank.