SearchTHIS: Google, Yahoo! or MSN?

Here we are again. It's the middle of December, and you are probably doing one of two things: winding the year down and thanking your deity of choice for providing the means to live through yet another difficult year, or perhaps you are getting a jump on the competition for 2006.

Search sites are still seeking to answer the age old search question: what will be the tipping point for swaying the minds of searchers? Will it be Yahoo!'s enhanced video and audio interaction? Or will MSN's targeting abilities hold the keys to the search audience lock box. Or will Ask Jeeves -- with its unique spin on search answers -- reach out to searchers and win them over?

Stranger things have happened.

If you want a lesson in how quickly the search world changes, check out search share reports from 2000: you'll notice the conspicuous absence of the biggest name in search today. What does the future hold?

How about a little cash incentive to help users decide which search destination to choose? 

The MSN report

Since Microsoft could not manufacture enough Xbox 360s this year, I won't be getting one under my tree. And while I can't forgive the tech giant for that, I admire the idea of bringing new products or ideas to the table during the holidays. Speaking of new ideas, MSN made news early this year by introducing a completely new way for marketers to reach searchers: adCenter. The new program combines registration data with audience profiling details that allow marketers to zero in on their target audience. But that's old news.

More recently, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Microsoft is contemplating a plan that would compensate surfers for using MSN Search with either cash or software incentives.  Of course, a usage incentive calls into question the validity of searcher's intentions, but you have to admit the concept is provocative.

Provocative as it may be, that doesn't make the concept a smart one. For one comparative example, let's say I am considering buying a ranch in Northern California and leaving the industry forever to become a hemp farmer. That doesn't mean I am going to pull the trigger without doing a little research first. Much like my relocation plan, MSN will have to weigh the consequences of appealing to the lowest common denominator for audience share. For a plan like this to work, MSN will also need to look for balance between incentive and intent. Maybe there is something to be learned from those who have already beaten around this particular bush: for example, iWon.

Redefining success

The search engine world saw some pretty exciting things happen this year. The top three providers Google, Yahoo! and MSN are all struggling to solve the big picture problem of providing searchers with exactly what they want at the exact time they want it.

According to Nielsen//NetRatings July, 2005 data, Google Search represented about 46 percent of all searches, followed by Yahoo! Search at 23 percent, and MSN Search at 13 percent.

Slicing the data a bit differently, we see search behavior by the number of searchers per site with Google Search and Yahoo! Search at 27 and 20 searches per person, respectively, and MSN Search with 14 searches per person.

Is the number of searches a good way to measure a search site's merit, or is it simply a guide for a search site's inability to translate a query into relevant results? In the same time period last July (right about the time IAC acquired the site) iWon searchers, who have an incentive to search, conducted a disproportionate 13 searches per searcher with its 0.9 percent search share.

So people search more when it is in their interest to do so, but more search activity doesn't mean that a bigger piece of the audience pie is headed your way. 

I got yer portal

Early in this decade, we measured the effectiveness of search destination (or portal, as it were) according to the traffic it generated from other value added content areas. Google redefined the success metrics for directive driven interactions and our new way of measurement.

Indeed, categorizing Google as simply a search site is precisely how competitors got into trouble in the first place. It's just a search utility; they said, scoffing at the funny name. Only a few short years later, everyone is following Google's lead and trying to catch up.

Yet, searchers are deciding that a directive search home page is not necessarily the alpha and omega of the search relationship. According research from Hitwise in July, 2005 Yahoo! Search received 73 percent of its visits directly from its main portal sites ( and while MSN Search received 61 percent of its visits from its portal sites (, and

Finding your niche

Hitwise also reported in July that Yahoo! is the leading service in local search. Visits to Yahoo! Local were 4.4 times greater than visits to Google Local in July.  2005. It is interesting to note that Google Local's market share increased 61 percent between February 2005 and July 2005, while Yahoo! Local grew 14 percent.

Why isn't it clear that value added content -- which increases the connective tissue between user, function and desired outcome -- is the smart play in search? Hitwise also noted that 17 percent of Yahoo! Local's visitors went directly onto Yahoo! Maps in July 2005. Last summer's maps are hieroglyphics compared to today's Google Earth and MSN's recently announced Live Local powered by Virtual Earth.

Did you notice that a healthy chunk of MSN's traffic came from a hardware manufacturer relationship? Microsoft has a much-hyped integrated search operating system for us, but what about new machines with Google wi-fi and toolbars already waiting for us to unlock?

I am not serious… or maybe I am

In the spirit of an anything goes, year-end wrap up column, I have a suggestion for clearing up some of the problems in the business so we can really focus on creating sound search interactions. The anarchist in me would like to introduce an entirely different platform. One that will single-handedly remove the click fraud issue while eliminating any worries about cash incentives for surfers.

Why not charge the user for each click? Change the model so that users have to invest something in search advertising rather than paying them for an activity that costs them nothing. Advertisers will make certain paid listings will be relevant or risk reprisals from misdirected searchers. Surfers will think twice about clicking on seven different ads before making a purchase, and click fraud will all but disappear.

Natural search will have to become more efficient because users will default to free listings for research -- where they arguably spend most of their time anyway.

I still have a few details to work out, but you can see where I am going with this idea -- what better way to build loyalty than to reach into the surfers pockets, rather than offer them a hand out?

Stranger things have happened.

iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan's current and former client roster reads like a "who's who" in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.
Mr. Ryan is managing partner at Kinetic Results.