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What Will It Take to Unseat Google?

Kevin M. Ryan
What Will It Take to Unseat Google? Kevin M. Ryan

Google has a great start on the New Year and is once again making headlines. Not for ground breaking search but by opening up the sky. That's right folks, world domination is not enough, and Google has announced plans to help build a 27-foot Large Synoptic Survey Telescope atop a mountain in Chile; the new project is slated for completion around 2013.

While Google has set its sights on getting in touch with aliens, search contenders are making moves to overtake Google. But just how should one set out to compete with a search giant that plans to offer search technology that enables one to locate astral bodies in addition to the latest Britney Spears photos?

More efficient search technologies? Perhaps. How about massive media campaigns to generate awareness? History has taught us that millions of advertising dollars spent on generating awareness does not translate into a sticky user base.

Let's take a closer look at the competitive landscape and see if we can identify where opportunity will knock.

Stats on the move
Search market share is a hot topic, and analysts almost always cite immediate market share gains as barometer for search mindshare. comScore Networks qSearch reports are a pretty good broad stroke indicator of search dominance. Specifically, each search site's share of total searches is measured over time.

In recent history there has been one clear winner.

Americans conducted 6.8 billion searches in October, 2006 and of those searches nearly half were conducted on Google, about 45 percent. Yahoo! maintained about 28 percent of overall search share from August to October, 2006. MSN lost a bit of ground in the same time period going from 12.5 percent to 11.7 percent of overall searches.

All eyes have been on Ask.com as the fourth or fifth place contender has big plans for search. Ask.com's May 2005 position was six percent of overall searches according to comScore. Consistent but marginal growth -- 5.3 percent to 5.8 percent of overall searches -- from May to October, 2006 along with the release of smart new tools have analysts excited.

Of course, getting analysts excited doesn't seem to be all that difficult. Oddly enough, growth rates of around 30 percent in ad revenue are touted as an outstanding effort, yet search volume is growing at about 33 percent (October 2005 to 2006) year over year, according to comScore.

Is it the tools?
It's not just internet search anymore. We have mobile, desktop, calendars, calculators, translators and satellite mapping. Each search destination is seeking to enhance our daily lives with new and better tools.

These enhancements are arguably Microsoft's best chance at grabbing a bit more search market share. MSN has consistently held its own with about 12 percent of searchers, according to October, 2006 comScore data. The real proof of growth and increased penetration has yet to be seen as Windows Live continues its battle for a larger foothold.

Tools may or may not be the key to giant increases on the search front. Traffic to Google Calendar increased 333 percent from June to December, 2006, according to recent report from Hitwise. The dominant portion of calendar traffic coincides with users of email with MSN and Yahoo, but not Google.

MSN received 88 percent of its calendar traffic from Hotmail, while Yahoo received about 48 percent of its traffic from Yahoo Mail or Yahoo Address Book. Google received only 19 percent of its traffic from Gmail, while 42 percent came from search.

The data suggests there are other motivations for adopting the Google Calendar, but the real performance comparison would be a bit unfair at the moment. That is, online tools are great when they suit a practical purpose online. An up-to-date currency calculator is appropriate, but calendars have almost exclusively resided on the desktop-- as witnessed by Microsoft's near total domination in the software world.

Future out, migration from the desktop online might will be a good performance indicator, but for now it seems that focusing on "internet appropriate" tools is a smart move. One thing should be certain for new players in the game: tools take a back seat. and smart search is the starting point for increasing market share.

Next: ChaCha, Answers, and Wikipedia's entries into the search space

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Startups galore
New entries into the search world happen every day, and there are a multitude of providers seeking to add value to the search experience. The continued growth of search behavior spells opportunity for investors, and the Google success story has made venture funds readily available.

The newest "wiki" made news this week as a solid entry into the search space. From the founders of Wikipedia, "Wikia" has arrived on the scene looking to capitalize on a much-needed niche increase in search efficiency by adding a social dimension to finding what you need.

Guided search is moving forward with providers like ChaCha that uses real live humans to help locate information. Answers.com is bridging the gap between content and search destinations.

Social search providers and other entries seeking to enhance the information-finding experience all want to solve the same problem: nullify the presence of search engine spam content while creating a more relevant experience for users.

While the enhanced experience is a smart move, it won't be enough to overtake Google, which has plans to revamp its algorithm again in order to dull the effect of content spammers. An algorithmic enhancement to retain the user base is a much simpler alternative to launching a new search site and trying to gain market share.

Real opportunity: a simple definition
Each new search venture has one goal in common: developing a solid revenue model that immediately coincides with a value-added user experience.

Google's help with identifying astral bodies has raised some questions about the search giant's motivations. Google has offered to help analyze the massive amounts of data (some 30 terabytes of data per day by some estimates) generated by the big looking glass. Of course, no revenue model has been established to monetize Orion's belt.

Question the motivation if you will, but in today's day and age, corporate fiscal and social responsibility have become a running joke. As you might recall, it was Google's mission to provide access to the world's data -- advertising arrived on the scene shortly thereafter -- and that model seemed to work out pretty well. 

Google's power to influence access to the world's information has led to more than one critic (including yours truly) to stand up and take notice. Maybe Google's idea of leading the charge to invest in the future of the human race -- or at least to do something good in advance of generating revenue -- is the key to being number one and winning the hearts and minds of the searching public.

Kevin Ryan is the Chief Executive Officer of Kinetic Results. Read full bio.


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