Google’s Death Grip and Search Snapshots

First published December 11, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Considering that I’ve devoted the last six months to exploring the impact of brand in search in this column, I do have a bit of a backlog of other things to deal with, so today I’d like to clear the decks on at least two issues. Last week, I was in Park City, Utah for the Search Insider Summit. As usual, a number of insight comments bubbled to the top over the three and a half days. This time, many of them were centered on the Google hegemony. In fact, on Day 2, we tackled that very question with Danny Sullivan, Jeff Pruitt, President of SEMPO (day job: iCrossing) and John Tawardros from iProspect. What did we resolve? Not very much, but that didn’t make the conversation any less interesting.

Google is Looking Good by Comparison

When it comes to search as it’s currently defined (we’ll get to that definition in a minute), Google is in a league of its own. But I think the panel agreed that it’s not so much that Google is doing exceptionally well as that the competition is either standing still or going backwards. Yahoo is struggling on many fronts and its search experience is drifting without direction (other than bolstering the sagging bottom line). And Microsoft not only isn’t in the race, its strategists can’t seem to agree amongst themselves where the starting line is. Right now Google’s algorithm could be powered by beer, darts and a frat house and it would still outperform the competition. I’ve talked before about the Google Habit”(a term that came up again in the discussion) and right now, there’s no compelling reason to even think about breaking it.

Will the Threat Come From Below, If Not Above?

So, if the big players aren’t threatening Google, how about a start-up company? Several have stepped up to the challenge recently, as detailed in Aaron Goldman’s “Not so Natural Born Google Killers” series. But so far, it seems that they’ve all come to a gun fight armed with a jack knife. I get an invitation every week or two to look at the next “revolution in search.” As I’ve ranted about at length in the past, most of these starts-ups are based on some founder’s idea of what should be revolutionary, without really considering whether it helped the user. Cuill was particularly abysmal in this regard. And, if a start-up did somehow significantly up the ante for the search user, I’m guessing Google’s radar would pick it up and it would be quickly gobbled up. The three conditions that allowed Google’s emergence — a truly better algorithm, founders naïve yet capable of inventing a new kind of company, and competition too stupid to realize it — are unlikely to happen again.

One other point on this issue. If innovation comes from another player, it has to benefit the user. Google has always had a clear prioritization of goals. The user always comes first, monetization after. Yahoo and Microsoft don’t share this same philosophy, trying to juggle the goals of advertisers and users. Because of this, if something that revolutionizes search for the user comes from a start-up, Google will be looking at it through the right lens and will be more likely to recognize it for what it is. It could pass right under Yahoo and Microsoft’s nose without them realizing it.

Hint: Look Outside the Box

Given the factors above, the outlook is not good for easing Google’s death grip on search. But the fact is, we’re assuming search will remain as it is. As someone in the audience reminded us, search takes many forms in the digital world: looking for people, searching maps, scanning videos, etc. Much that is search happens outside the world we currently define as “search.” It’s from here that Google’s challenger might potentially come.

Search Snapshot

Now to the other piece of business I wanted to clear up this week. Obviously the world of search has changed a lot in the past 12 months. Google’s increasing domination is only one aspect. The global financial meltdown has turned everything upside down. So, with all the forces at play, what is the impact on search? Well, SEMPO is currently asking you just that in its annual State of Search survey. Please take a few minutes to share the view from your particular part of the search world.

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