The Re, Reinvention of Search
By Todd Hixon
Twice now I have casually thought that the battle for control of the Internet search market was done, won, and over. Way back in the late 1900s, when Microsoft’s spell-checker still replaced “internet” with “internment”, the original inventors of search seemed to have developed it to the point of diminishing returns, making search a commodity. I’m thinking of Lycos, Altavista, and the like. But, Google was already gaining momentum with its page-rank algorithm. It steam-rolled the early leaders and became the dominant internet company we see today.
The great game is not over. (Image credit: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife)
The game is changing again. Multiple companies are developing search businesses with a vertical (i.e., market) orientation. These businesses are becoming significant, and most of them do not belong to Google. This phenomenon is somewhat stealthy because these vertical search businesses usually don’t advertise themselves as “search”.
Amazon is becoming the search engine for buying products: almost anything that UPS can deliver. Forrester recently reported that 30% of on-line shoppers use Amazon first to research an intended purchase. Only 13% use Google. Amazon’s share of the U.S. e-commerce market has increased from 9% in 2001 to 19% today (source).
Kayak is the search engine for air travel. It’s the place to go for the most comprehensive and objective information. Google bought ITA and offers travel search, but it’s visibility in this market is still low. Expedia and Travelocity have search capabilities, but their results are significantly biased, based on the deals they have with carriers.
Wikipedia is the search engine for synthesized knowledge. If you want to know what a disease is, or how optical engineers think about brightness (lumens, nits, and such), you probably go to Wikipedia, and if you search Google, Wikipedia is probably in the top 5 natural search results.
LinkedIn is the search engine for business professionals. It’s main revenue source is rercuiters, who pay to find people they want to hire.
Google Maps is Google’s very successful specialization of search, around geographic information and local commerce. The fact that it’s a separate product from mainstream Google search, and the difficulty that focused offerings from Apple and AOL (Mapquest) have had competing with Google Maps underline the strategic importance of specialization here.
And, the innovations keep coming:
Facebook is introducing “social search”. It will combine convention search results (e.g., “Sushi restaurants near this location”) with social information (“Sushi restaurants that my friends like”). Facebook is building on top of a highly developed conventional search platform: Microsoft’s Bing. It’s early days for this initiative, but, you can see how it could carve out a big piece of the market, much as Amazon has done (more).
Google and at least one private company* are using large numbers of small surveys on the web and “big data” technology to create very large “virtual” consumer panels. Marketers and politicians can query these panels with questions about consumer sentiment and preferences and receive results overnight. You could call this “subjective search”.
And then there is “meta” search. DuckDuckGo.com [not my favorite name, but it does communicate challenge to the establishment] offers a search engine that leverages the vertical search engines: it takes a query, feeds it to the right specialized search engine(s), and synthesizes the results. DDG also commits to no tracking, no “bubbling” (filtering results according to what they have learned by tracking you), and a clean, less-commercial interface reminiscent of Google in the early days. DDG’s search volume is doubling every six months. I have been using it as my main search engine for 18 months; it’s better most of the time.
Two conclusions here. First, the profound importance of search makes it a near-endless seam of value that engineers and entrepreneurs can mine. Second, never assume the game is over.
— — — — — — — — — — — — -
*CivicScience, a company in which New Atlantic Ventures has an investment.
[This post first appeared at blogs.forbes.com/toddhixon on February 7, 2013.]