Google is Search – But Can Anyone Topple the Giant?

Just as coca-cola was “it” in the 1980’s, in the 21st century Google is the king of search. Their command of both search queries (at somewhere around 65%) and search revenue (around 77% – BRW Magazine) is simply staggering and means that when it comes to search, they are conservatively doubling the performance of all their competitors combined. According to Google’s own promotional material, their advertising network alone reaches 80% of the world’s 1.4 billion internet user’s every month.

So the question then becomes, can anyone topple Google? In the late 90’s Yahoo! was the number one, but Google looked at Yahoo’s weaknesses and created a cleaner search engine that supposedly delivered better search results. But can anyone do it again?

Google continue to go from strength to strength, and their reach is unrivalled. Their advertising network includes AOL, Ask.com and now Yahoo and their recent acquisitions of DoubleClick and Youtube have only broadened their market.

With the much-hyped Yahoo! and Microsoft deal falling through, and Yahoo’s subsequent search marketing deal with Google, who is left to take on the giant of search? Let’s go through the main competitors:

Yahoo!

Currently sitting in a distant second in terms of both advertising and search query share, many claim that Yahoo’s search algorithm is actually superior to Google’s. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant, as the vast majority of users have spoken with their clicks and head to Google for its clean feel. The big thing that Google has over Yahoo is the way Google is able to separate out each of its products to keep that clean feel. Yahoo pack everything they offer into one homepage, which can make it hard to identify what their primary focus is. As a result, many users wonder whether Yahoo’s search is being given the focus it deserves. Yahoo will certainly remain profitable, as they have a loyal fan base that swear by it, but I just can’t see them storming the Google fortress, particularly now they are relying on their ad network.

MSN/Live

If Yahoo is a distant second, then Microsoft’s Live Search is back an eternity in third place. Again, however, there are those out there who believe Microsoft’s search to be better, but I am a definite sceptic on this one. For Microsoft to really succeed in search they need a massive overhaul, and massive overhauls are not really Microsoft’s style. More than likely Microsoft will just let Live run its course, as it doesn’t really seem to have the desire to be number one in search, or else it probably would have put more emphasis on it’s deal with Yahoo rather than letting it slip by the wayside.

AOL, Ask, etc

The old players in the market. Most of these engines still get a decent run of traffic, but most are also relying on Google advertising deals to keep them profitable. These guys are not real challengers for the crown.

Mahalo

Mahalo is an interesting one. Mahalo is Hawaiian for thank you, and the premise behind this start-up is that it is the web’s only human-powered search engine. That is, its search results are not driven by algorithm’s but by human generated results pages. To me it seems like Wikipedia and Dogpile rolled into one, as the user is able to search all the various other engines if Mahalo does not have a page created. I don’t think the concept of a human-powered search engine can work, particularly when it comes to updating it constantly at the speed of web. Wikipedia works but I don’t see Mahalo taking off. It is useful however, if you want to search all the major search engines (and Wikipedia, Youtube, Flickr) all in one go. Other than that I don’t see it ever matching Google. Google’s algorithm’s refresh daily, which is almost impossible for a human-powered search engine to match.

Clusty

Another meta approach to search. Just like Dogpile, Clusty attempts to rank results by aggregating results from other search engines. Once generated however, Clusty clusters results together into categories of results. This is a useful tool but won’t have Google shaking.

Other Small Start-ups

Quintura, Blinkx, Powerset, Kosmix, the list goes on. All these players however, are only targeting tiny market niches, market niches that Google could quite easily swat away with one extra feature to their own search results. The other problem most of these smaller players have is they lack the resources to operate their own search algorithm’s and many of the newcomers rely on refining a Google search.

The Verdict

Here’s the problem as I see it for the other players attempting to usurp Google; all of them either rely on Google’s search is some way or are targeting niche markets that Google could themselves cover by throwing a few million at a new Google product.

Google have already done this with email. Google took a search-based approach to internet-based email and eroded Microsoft’s Hotmail monopoly in a flash, so these small niche players had better watch their back. If Microsoft can be beaten so easily, where does that leave the little guy?

But all the big players (including Yahoo thanks to this new deal) are relying on Google in some way either for search results or search advertising. All, that is, except Microsoft. Microsoft’s Live is the one major search engine out there not dependent on Google’s algorithms or advertising dollars.

Over the last few years Google has continually stripped away Microsoft’s stranglehold on all things digital, and maybe the time is right for the old dog to get angry and strike back.

Alas, however, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen…

Craig Somerville is a Director at Reload Media, having worked extensively on the digital and online strategies of leading companies within Australia and around the world. With a background in marketing and economics, Craig's unique experience offers great insight into how the world of search and online marketing is changing in today's rapid marketplace. He is also a Google AdWords Qualified Professional and regularly consults on all aspects of digital marketing including search engine optimisation (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM) and social media.