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by Stephen Logan on 8th February 2012
Google is often accused of monopolising the search market. Despite this, new start-ups are consistently trying to get a piece of the action. Some are determined to topple the big boys, whilst others are happy to attract a niche audience. However, as we invariably reach saturation point, what do new search engines need to offer in order to succeed?
Cuil is often cited as a classic example of a search engine trying to do too much too soon. Developed by Googlers, it got huge funding and employed extensive marketing to ensure the whole world knew about it. Sadly, Cuil just wasn’t different or good enough to succeed, resulting in its closure in 2010 – just two years after being launched.
So if Cuil is the benchmark of failure, what do new search engines need to do to carve out their own share of the market?
The Ask Jeeves Model
For instance, at no point has Ask (Jeeves) been the best search engine. It enjoyed the obvious advantage of being a pioneer within the search industry, having been founded mid-boom, but has always played second fiddle to other, more advanced engines. Initially against the likes of Yahoo and Altavista, latterly Google and Bing.
What Ask Jeeves had, and still has, though was a gimmick. The P.G. Wodehouse butler fetching results and answering questions on demand differentiates it from any other search engines. Despite not even offering its own search service any more, Ask still has a 1.84% market share here in the UK and 2.90% in the States. Some might see this as near-irrelevance and a sign that the company has failed, but with revenue rising to $227 million last year, it’s still the envy of most start-ups.
Sure, Ask has had a chequered history of questionable acquisitions and new directions, but it has survived for over 15 years. This is more than can be said for a lot of Internet companies, let alone search engines.
Today, the challenge is much greater for new search engines. If you ask any friends from outside the industry what Blekko or DuckDuckGo is, most won’t have the first clue. Some might not even be aware that Bing exists. Search is still a Google-centric industry and that isn’t about to change any time soon. However, this isn’t to say that others can’t try or indeed succeed. Even MC Hammer is going to give it a go.
Succeeding Where Google Fails
Google’s downfall is its size and the mistrust that this creates. Their issues with privacy and the move away from conventional search have also offered a window of opportunity for others. Providing spam-free, clean, simple results without any of the side attractions could well be the formula that gives upstarts a competitive advantage – something DuckDuckGo in particular is attempting.
Attempting to go head-to-head is only going to end in tears. Focus is where the real battle can be won or lost. For instance, if you could create the best search facility for tablet computers or smartphones, you could undercut Google quite easily in this market. Their algorithm isn’t perfect and nor are their results pages, therefore this is where new and existing search engines can capitalise.
Blekko introduced user-moderated results and slashtags to provide a spam-free results service. It now answers 70 to 80 million queries every month and has attracted 1.5 million unique users, but can it take the next step and achieve wider adoption? It’s a similar story for DuckDuckGo. The company and its search queries are on the rise, but still only achieves a tiny fraction of the total market.
Going Local: Country-specific Search Engines
Country-specific search engines like Yandex, Baidu and even Yahoo Japan (which isn’t fully owned by Yahoo) are hugely successful, but have limited appeal beyond their respective countries. However, this is still a model that British, European and American countries could still employ. You could argue that this is slightly counterproductive, but if you can become the majority search engine in a country, you can serve results to tens of millions of users.
62 million people live in the UK, with 82% having access to the Internet. So that’s around 51 million people for a UK-only search engine to target. If they were to get a 3% share of the market, then it would have the same global market share as Blekko. That’s a lot of ifs and assumptions, but this is where damage can really be done to Google’s dominance; Russia and China offer prime examples of how effective this can be.
Local search is huge and getting bigger thanks to mobile usage. Google has to rely on algorithms and easily-gamed data to make decisions on which local results are shown; if somebody could find a way of working around this and mining data from actual customers and visitors, results will be infinitely better.
Changing Attitudes of Casual Users
For me, and many other Internet users, spam is a non-issue. If you are searching for something specific, then more often than not, you know what you want to find and from whom. Whilst it’s easy to forget how bad it was before search engines began to clean up their act, claiming that your index is spam-free is unlikely to turn my head. Understanding the intention of a searcher on the other-hand is huge.
If I type in “car auctions in Hampshire”, the likelihood is that I want to buy a car in Hampshire as soon as possible. Currently, the only results you get are a few auction sites, a number of directories and some general vehicle auctioneers. Tell me where and when the next car auction is and you’ve won. That’s the only information I need, but yet it still requires clicking through to a number of sites and filtering through irrelevant sources. As such, many search engines aren’t providing answers, just a list of sites that may or may not be able to help.
The challenge therefore for new search engines is to spy problems and look to fix them. Whether Wiredoo and its “deep search” can provide this is up for debate; equally, are DuckDuckGo or Blekko different enough to justify wider usage? I use search engines every day, I also keep up-to-date with the latest developments, therefore I am not representative of the majority of searchers.
It is the people that just want the right information from a reliable source that offer the Holy Grail to new engines. Essentially, the kind of people that still use Yahoo or AOL out of a 15 year habit. Cuil tried this, DuckDuckGo is attempting it and Ask Jeeves continue to do it. A small stake in a huge market can be extremely lucrative, but to get bigger, you have to convince people to break their habits.
Is social search the future, or is it just a way of by-passing faulty algorithms? There’s not a great deal of evidence to suggest that people want search results impacted by their friends; however, it may be seen as the lesser evil in the effort to clean up search. So should new search engines be looking to provide social results or ignore this altogether? A lot, as always, will depend on how well they can use this data and present it without falling foul of privacy rules. It’s a poor man’s semantic search, but arguably the best that we can do with the current technology.
So let’s throw it open to the floor. What do you think the search industry is missing? Is Google too big or too good to be overthrown? Are mobile-specific, local or semantically driven results the real answer? Finally, can a new search engine break the top 3 (Google, Bing and Yahoo), if so, when and how?