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OCTOBER 5, 2006
By Catherine Holahan
A Gaggle of Google Wannabes
Ask.com and other challengers hope to pull share from Google with new
search methods, but it won't be easy to unseat the market leader
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In the race for Web-search share, Ask.com is the tortoise. The search
engine formerly known as Ask Jeeves still handles less than 6% of U.S.
searches, though it's been in the industry since 1996, more than a year
before front-runner Google. Google controls roughly 51% of searches,
including queries conducted on Time Warner's (TWX) AOL and News Corp.'s
But IAC/Interactive's (IACI) Ask.com and other tortoise-like Web-search
rivals are hoping they'll gain advantage in the long run by coming up
with new, clever methods of searching for information on the Web, as
Google ramps up efforts to expand beyond search. "Google's strategy has
shifted from trying to get you to information on the Web to trying to
capture more and more of your time," says Doug Leeds, Ask.com
vice-president for product management. "We are focused solely on
getting people to their information faster."
EXPANDING TERRITORY. During the past year, Google has turned its
attention to territories controlled by Yahoo! (YHOO), Microsoft (MSFT),
eBay (EBAY), and others. It has launched a finance site to compete with
one of Yahoo's leading products, an online payment system similar to
eBay's PayPal, and spreadsheet software aimed at stealing some of
Microsoft's Excel business (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/10/06, "So Much
Fanfare, So Few Hits"). It has also been busy bringing the world's
libraries online (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/7/06, "Google Seeks Help with
Google views the new projects as part of a mission to make all
information accessible with a few keystrokes, and says they're closely
related to Google's main search franchise. In no way is Google taking
its eye off search, says Matt Cutts, a core quality engineer at Google.
"We have more engineers working on core search technology than ever
before," says Cutts, adding that most employees spend about 75 percent
of their time tweaking Google's main search algorithm to make results
faster, more relevant, and more comprehensive for users. "There are
always changes going on behind the curtains, and changes happen weekly
or faster than weekly."
NEW FORMULAS. None of that's deterring Ask and its ilk. Google's
algorithm, known as Page-Rank, was developed by co-founders Sergey Brin
and Larry Page in the mid-1990s. Unlike other search formulas of the
day, which showed results based on the number of times a particular
search word showed up on the page, Page-Rank orders links based in part
on the number of times other pages link to them.
Ask.com's algorithm, on the other hand, retrieves and ranks results
based on the number of times groups identified as related to the topic
reference the site. Company executives say the method is superior
because it theoretically avoids displaying generally popular sites that
are not frequently referenced by other sites on the topic.
Under that scenario, if a blogger who typically writes about Paris
Hilton suddenly decides to delve into string theory, the site wouldn't
necessarily show up in results-unless other string theory-related
sites refer to the celeb site's new-found interest in physics. Ask's
algorithm also lets it suggest related queries from within the topic
group. So, for example, a search on John Lennon would also bring up
related searches about the Beatles and Yoko Ono.
TOPIC COMMUNITIES. Clusty.com, a smaller search engine that has six
to seven million searches a month compared with Google's 2.9 billion
searches, also uses topic communities to separate it from Google. On
Oct. 2, the search engine released a new feature called a "clusty
cloud" that retrieves a list of topics related to the query, rather
than a series of page links. Clicking on the topics reveals the related
links. Clusty CEO Raul Valdes-Perez says that users appreciate not
getting the "usual dump of results that you get at Google."
Microsoft's Live Search, launched in September, also employs the idea
of topic communities to enhance search, says Justin Osmer, senior
product manager at Live Search. MSN is currently the No. 3 search
engine, with 12.5% of the market. It hopes some of Live's new
features-such as the ability to customize different homepages related
to particular queries and then share those pages with users-will win
it market share.
"We have intentions for first place, so we are definitely in it for the
long haul," says Osmer. "We think we are bringing something that is
unique and differentiated that can compete on the basis of search
results but then adds this new layer to the search experience."
SOCIAL SEARCH. An oft-discussed new layer to traditional search has
been the inclusion of social search sites that help answer queries
through user-supplied answers or links. Both Microsoft and Yahoo have
entered the social search arena with the inclusion of
question-and-answer sites, but Yahoo has been a particularly aggressive
player since acquiring bookmarking site del.icio.us 18 months ago (see
BusinessWeek.com, 10/2/06, "Yahoo's Strategy: Growth by Acquisition").
Yahoo, the No. 2 search engine, also sees social search as a complement
to its core search technology that will eventually help it gain on
Google. "Web searching can be frustrating for a lot of people," says
Tomi Poutanen, Yahoo's director of product management for social
search. "Search does a very good job if you are searching for something
factual or doing research. It is not as good when searching for
experiential knowledge-such as what is a good sushi restaurant in New
York-where a person's experience would count in having that answer."
Eurekster, a nearly three-year-old search engine, sees so much promise
in social search that it has based its whole business model on it. The
engine allows users to build mini search engines, called swickis, that
aggregate information on particular topics from sites they choose. "We
completely agree with Yahoo that social search is the next generation
of search," says Eurekster CEO Steven Marder. He uses the example of a
teenager searching for skin care. On a swicki for teens, the teenager
can find information relevant only to his age group. A general search
would bring back results on wrinkles.
As hot as social search may be, Eurekster and Yahoo both acknowledge
that it isn't enough to replace text search-Google's bread and
butter. "Our play is not to have a destination search engine," says
AN ISSUE OF TRUST. Another major way that search engines have tried
to compete with Google is by creating a more visual interface. Rather
than just return a series of links, both Ask.com and Snap.com have
features that allow users to see an image of the page as they scroll
over the link. The capability enables users to better judge the content
of their results without clicking on the links and loading individual
Snap co-founder and CEO Tom McGovern says his company is hopeful that
its image and text interface will become the future model for search.
However, he says it would be a mistake for search engines to think that
their new features are enough to oust Google as the market leader. "I
do think that if you fast-forward five years, most of the search
engines will have embraced the graphical interface," says McGovern.
"That doesn't necessarily mean that all of a sudden the market shares
will be dramatically different. I don't think that will be the case."
Indeed, neither do analysts. Many say that despite the ease of
switching to a new search engine, the new technologies are not
different enough to draw users away from Google. "People don't just go
to Google because they can get the best search results," says Safa
Rashtchy, a managing director at Piper Jaffray (PJC). "They also go
there because they trust it. The technology would have to be massively
more useful than the existing one to get people to switch.
Theoretically it is possible, but realistically it is unlikely."
GOOGLE STILL GAINING. That may explain why Google keeps gaining share
in the face of newly launched capabilities on other engines. In August,
Google sites gained 6.8 percentage points of search share from a year
earlier, according to researcher comScore Media Metrix. Meantime, Yahoo
lost 1 percentage point, Microsoft's sites lost 3.3 percentage points,
and Ask.com lost one-half of a percentage point. Meanwhile, Amazon's
(AMZN) A9 search engine scaled back features on its search engine,
signaling it could not compete with search titans Google and Yahoo.
And ultimately, Google could easily acquire or replicate any search
method that makes significant headway, says Jefferies & Co. (JEF)
analyst Youssef Squali. "If it is really attractive, I fully expect
Google to just add the technology or copy it," says Squali. "In terms
of text search: Good luck trying to compete with Google."
That's just what they told the tortoise.
Holahan is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York
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