Why Search May Not Fragment

First published April 20, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

On April 5, fellow Search Insider Max Kalehoff wrote about the likelihood of search continuing to be dominated by three players. Max, very convincingly, argued that our search activity could fragment over a number of properties, some of them vertical engines that offer more functionality, some of them alternative online properties, like social networking sites.

As search becomes an increasing important online staple, I believe the question of where all that activity will take place also takes on increased importance. For that reason, I’d like to play devil’s advocate (in this case, the devil being the established search players, Google, Yahoo and MSN) and offer some reasons why we might continue to consolidate our search activity on these familiar partners.

Creatures of Habit

Generally speaking, our paths are well worn online. We tend to frequent the sites we know, only seeking out new sites when our familiar ones don’t offer what we’re looking for. This is true of most humans.

I’ve written before that online is going through a social evolution, as the early adopters who pioneered the virtual landscape are increasingly being joined by the pragmatic main market. This makes the fact that we tend to frequent sites we know and trust even truer. While viral growth still happens at an amazing pace online, it’s the early adopters, or, in this case, the online mavens, who tend to fuel the viral growth.

And rapid growth is a relative term that we tend to regard disproportionately. If you’re reading this column, my guess is you’re an early adopter. In our social circles, almost everyone we interact with is an early adopter. It’s why we’re in the industry we’re in. So we tend to blow up the importance of the viral growth of new emerging sites. Chances are, everybody you know is aware of Youtube.com, Myspace.com or Technorati.com. But everybody you or I know is an uber-savvy online geek, at least, compared to my mother. Ma’s never heard of Youtube.com. To her, Googling something is still a task to be approached with caution.

For search properties to gain the critical mass needed to safely cross the chasm, they have to attract mainstream users. Otherwise, they’ll become stranded on the leading edge, there to wither and die.

Deep Pockets

Here’s another advantage of the mainstream players. While promising new technologies can gain some significant venture capital cash, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the billions available to MSN, Google or Yahoo. So, the big three can wait to see which search or online technologies shows the promise of cracking the mainstream market, offering some compelling reasons to use them, and they can swoop in and snap them up.

All things considered, if a Google, Yahoo or MSN can offer equivalent functionality to some hot-as-a-pistol start-up, it’s just easier to stick to one place, rather than hop around the cyber neighborhood. There were image search engines, news search engines and shopping search engines around before the big three started integrating that functionality, but now that they have it, we’re starting to keep our searching under one banner. There is one important thing to note here though; the big three have to at least offer comparable functionality. It doesn’t have to be better, but it has to be just as good. We are not very tolerant of bad user experiences.

Integration

Finally, and I’ve said this over and over again, search is heading for a ubiquitous, transparent future. We will soon see search functionality integrated seamlessly into our applications and operating systems, toiling away on our behalf in the background. In order to make this integration happen, you have to have your foot in either the OS or app world. Microsoft has this in spades, Google is quickly assembling a portfolio of apps and signing up partnerships with potential platform providers, and Yahoo is working the social networking and entertainment integration angle. All of these publishers know what it’s going to take to win the big search war, and they’re already staking their territory. My guess? It would almost be impossible for an emerging player to gain enough ground to challenge their positions.

For the reasons above, I believe that our search activity will continue to consolidate with the big three. The one dark horse I include is Ask.com, which has the potential to gain some significant market share with its new interface. I love underdogs as much as the next guy, but in this case, I think they’re a little late to the dance.

 

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