October 05, 2006

Looking Beyond Google

In the Web space, the big gorilla may seem insurmountable, but in stark contrast to the brick and mortar world, the supposed category leaders change relatively quickly, meaning companies need to continue their history of innovation to maintain and grow market share.

Even in the micromarket of Web search engines, you can see the progression. It could be argued that Webcrawler was the first big search engine. Entering search terms on Webcrawler in its infancy returned blue hyperlinks on a gray background, without ads, without search summaries or any other detail. In time, challengers emerged. Yahoo! opted to go the route of a mega-directory, ignoring search (at first), while enterprising scientists developed engines like Inktomi, HotBot and AltaVista, each one-upping the other in terms of search engine index span and accuracy. Meanwhile, other engines like Lycos and Excite gained a great deal of traffic, but weren't well known for their technology leadership. Yahoo!, then partners with Inktomi, before acquiring the company, became the far and away leader in the space.

But as we all know, it didn't last. Google, with its spartan interface, its targeted results, and PhD driven algorithms, soon took the title away from Yahoo!, becoming the default for most browsers, and soon aggregating more than 50 percent of the market. Now, you don't search for results, you "Google" them. Now, we see that everybody is competing with Google. Not just Yahoo!, but Microsoft, AOL, etc. And again, Google's lead seems insurmountable. They have tons of cash. They have a rapidly-growing brain trust of employees. They are a Wall Street darling. But, it's hard to be simple forever, and the company has been said to having taken their eye of the ball, on their core business, search, to pursue tangential distractions, including Google Earth, Google Gadgets, and other desktop tools.

Even Google seems to recognize that changes have to be made. In the last few weeks, the company quietly debuted a brand-new search engine as an experimental "sandbox" for new features, called SearchMash. SearchMash does away with contextual advertising, does away with offers to search Google News, or Froogle!, but simply displays Web page results and related images. The site again goes back to a Google-like spartan image, but lacks the Google branding and colors. One wonders why Google couldn't have used "yet another Beta" to play in this arena, or to tuck it away in one of their labs.

Outside of Google's labs and candy-colored Mountain View offices, a wide array of smaller companies are looking to outrun Google and catch the giant while it may be napping. BusinessWeek covers these challengers in a piece called "A Gaggle of Google Wannabes". While Google claims to have more people focused on core search than ever before, market share isn't handed out lightly, and a fickle customer base isn't that reluctant to try new options if the smaller, more nimble, competitors can change the game. 

This move is especially already clear when it comes to blogs. Google's Blog Search engine is woefully poor at filtering away spam blogs (splogs), and in this vacuum, engines like Technorati and Topix have taken the lead. Shopzilla and others have beaten Google at product searches. In the niches of this market, Google is not winning, and it will be a challenge to see how the company can reach these niches without getting ever more complex.

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