Has Someone Already Done It?

Entrepreneurs starting up on an idea ask themselves the question in title early within the process. Obviously, there is no reason to pursue an idea already in existence. Actually, we all encounter this question from time to time, when facing an unsatisfied need.

The problem is, even if we are able to describe our idea to another human being, we are not necessarily able to find our answer using the web. The web is great for finding information about things we can stick a name to. It is much less so for stuff we can only describe via a set of properties, or by comparison to similar products. This is an emerging field of  information science, up until 15 years ago the exclusive turf of librarians and scholars, and now via the internet – a common practice.

In this post I’d like to share from my experience several techniques for finding out the answer. For the illustration of examples, let’s take a random idea:

649. A website that will sell you a really cheap airline ticket to a foreign country anywhere in the world, but you only get to pick the day you’re leaving and coming back. The site picks where you’re going on vacation for you.

The Simple Google Search

If there’s a company selling it, they’ve probably done some minimal SEO, so searching for the right term should give you a fair indication whether someone is already flying people out to Kazakhstan at low, low prices.

  1. I pick a descriptive word or short phrase for what I’m searching for. In my example, I could use “random flight“.
  2. I then skim through the first page. For some ideas, I’d go to image search. In my example, I can see lots of the results for “random flight generator“, referring to flight simulators. I can’t find anything in the neighborhood of my idea.
  3. Refine your search. There are three main options, depending on the circumstances:
    1. Change a keyword. Sometimes the keyword you chose is strongly associated with a different business. In that case, you should try to change it to a synonymous one. For example, seeing how random flight brought me results for flight simulators, I could try using unplanned flight or random ticket. If working in a specialized field, it is a good idea to harvest wikipedia & a thesaurus for synonymous or closely related terms.
    2. Add a keyword. Adding keywords makes your search results more relevant, but also risks missing out on some relevant sources. The professional term for this trade-off is percision & recall. Be prepared for an iterative process, where you add & remove keywords repeatedly. As for my example, I could try random “flight ticket” or cheap random flight.
    3. Filter a keyword. Seeing a recurring pattern of irrelevant results, you could filter out a keyword associated with them. In this case, the search term would obviously change to random flight -generator.

Before searching, make sure you’re familiar with Google’s basic search predicates. There’s also this advanced guide.

So, my first search attempt ends up with purchase cheap random flight -generator -“random house”. In it, I found just 1 relevant link, to India Flight Cheap Tickets. This site is an index of cheap flight ticket providers. The words “random flight” appear next to a provider called Orbitz. However, the context (best prices for random flights) doesn’t sound like what I have in mind. Indeed, I can’t find anything similar on the Orbitz site, and fail at booking a flight with no destination.

I try rethinking my query. It seems that the term random was problematic. It brought in a lot of irrelevant results. Therefore, I try limiting it by “random destination” flight. Bingo! Reading the search previews, it seems half of the first-page entries deal with the question of getting a cheap flight, destination irrelevant. Going through the user-posted questions, I am able to find some flight vendors offering this service. For example, via Yahoo! Answers, the bottom-most answer directs me to lastminute.com. I also come up with an interesting Bing search option.

But this isn’t exactly what I had in mind. I’d want it as a surprise, getting to know my destination only at the airport (and if possible – only at landing!), so I mark down this site as a potential competitor/partner and keep searching.

My jargon has been enriched by this search. I can now search for surprise flight, which in turn leads me to discover another term: blind bookings. This goes on and on.

One of a Family

Sometimes, our product is unique, but in a sense similar to a family of other products.

Company Sites

Big companies invested in your field of interest are worth checking out. Browse their site a little to get a feel of what they offer. You might find your idea as a product on their site, or you might find an alternative solution they came up with for the same problem. In my example, I find a similar service to my own on Expedia.

Index Sites & Backlinks

Index sites (such as Yahoo) provide links to other sites, grouped by topic. The traditional approach is to go to a couple of big indexes (such as Yahoo). There is another, niftier way of finding index sites: Searching, in the same query, for two or more products similar to your idea. This should come up with index sites listing these products and save you valuable effort.

If you can’t seem to find relevant pages that aggregate several brands, try using backlinks. Backlinks are simply all pages linking to a certain page, a very distinct trait of index sites (as opposed to user forums, Yahoo Answers and similar services). This can be done using the “link:” tag in Google. Here is an example of a search term: link:http://www.expedia.com/daily/deals/lastminute_deals/flightdeals.asp link:http://www.lastminute.com/ -site:www.expedia.com -site:www.lasminute.com. The search yields LiveDirtCheap which is indeed an index for last minute flights.

The Community

If you’re building a gadget, go to a gadget enthusiasts’ forum. If you’re building an economic planner, go to an economists’ forum. You won’t get your answers in real time, but there is great added value waiting here: When you develop your product, these might be your most avid clientèle and promoters. Approaching them at such an early stage, and as a peer rather as a promoter, is a great way to start a potential community relation. Moreover, they won’t just tell you if something already exists; They’d tell you what’s wrong with current solutions.

In my example, I would probably go to a forum such as FlyerTalk.

Not Just Online

Talk to friends who are intelligent thinker’s. Find a community around you that could take interest. In my example, I could try and contact any airliner such as American Airlines or El-Al, and try to promote my idea to them. It’s a way for them to make some money on wasted seating, so it should interest them. They could tell me if someone’s already working with them on the idea, or perhaps did in the past and failed. Through them, I could reach frequent-flyers ask them if they know of any such services.

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Posted Wednesday, December 16th, 2009 under Growing Software.

3 comments

  1. Nice post. Has someone already done it? :)

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