Going, Going, Go.gone…

By the time you read this, more ink will have been spilled, both liquid and virtual, about GO.com‘s closing its doors than Pilsner Urquell at a Czech wedding.

That’s right. For those of you to whom this is a news flash, Disney Corp. decided to pull the plug on GO.com, the unfocused and newly redesigned portal first cobbled together by Disney back in 1998 when it optioned its right to buy out the remaining 57 percent of Infoseek it did not already own. Never one to be outdone in the media industry, even in a media arena it knew nothing about and over which it had no control, Disney was determined to get itself into the Internet business.

Search engines everywhere were suddenly becoming more than just a service for online users to find things that existed somewhere else on the Web. These properties were becoming catchall strip malls where Web users could go for every conceivable product or service.

Want free email? Go no further than a search engine near you. Want to build your own Web site for free? Listen to the radio over the Web? Go shopping? It was all right there at Yahoo or Lycos or Excite. Basically, netcentric entities were trying to become their own versions of AOL’s closed garden service. After all, AOL had the largest captive audience in this new media space. And the market was rewarding (as we now see, wrongly) traffic generators and eyeball catchers.

So, hopping on what at the time was to become one of the biggest bandwagon busts of all time, Disney formed a portal.

The problem with Disney’s GO.com portal, however, was that it simply wasn’t authentic. It was born with loafers, khakis, and a cobalt-blue shirt declaring itself an Internet player. There was nothing organic about its development. Unlike Microsoft, which bought its way to the Internet table through investment in its own efforts, Disney sought to simply buy other big chairs already there without much of a vision or a plan.

And, so, Disney was never able to make it work, and Michael Eisner, who was hailed a visionary a few years ago, came off sounding like such a Luddite when he said, “The advertising community has abandoned the Internet.” Advertisers have abandoned the Internet? Does he or do his people read any industry research? In spite of this latest news, the truth of the matter is that there aren’t as many advertisers using the Web simply because there are fewer advertisers, not because there’s less advertising online. A lot of the advertisers just don’t exist anymore. Y’all caught that great E*TRADE ad during the Super Bowl, right? No disrespect, Iron Eyes Cody…

There is something to be said for the idea that perhaps the portal strategy isn’t what the online space is all about. Eyeballs alone do not a business make. But perhaps if Mr. Eisner had read his Confucius he would know, as Confucius says to the archer, “Do not look to the arrow first for the cause of missing the bull’s-eye.”

Perhaps it wasn’t the portal itself, but rather Disney’s lack of vision and direction. There was a certain brand abandonment that happened with GO.com under Disney. The property was never sold aggressively or very smartly. GO.com didn’t negotiate very well, even though, like all other major portals, it had piles of remnant, unsold inventory sitting around every month. Like many of the portals, GO.com gave the agency community a lazy eye at best and instead thought it could go the route of the Yahoos and AOLs of the world with the big-biz development deal and the high CPMs.

GO.com shut out smaller advertisers wanting to do tests with cash from desired targeted inventory so that it could instead give to sites on their backs in the ICU like drkoop.com. Instead, it shouldn’t be afraid of monetizing the impression jetsam and flotsam that rim the shores of its site every month.

Disney, like many of the other media companies playing in this space, made the mistake of investing in a presence without investing in the research to prove (or disprove) the usefulness of the medium. I think it behooves these large media companies to lay down some lumber on research that shows extant advertisers that the medium is effective and has a place in an advertiser’s media mix.

We all understand that intuitively, but compelling data beyond the anecdotal variety that shows the impact of online advertising on a business’s bottom line would be a terrific investment. And it wouldn’t have to be that big of one. You think advertisers were the ones to pay the biggest money for research back in the early, maturing days of TV? It was the networks. They still pay the big bucks for research. Media companies have the most to gain (and lose) from doing this.

Perhaps it is time?

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