Where did all the search engines go?

Not many businesses are successful enough to have the name of their product or service become a verb, but a relative newcomer to the field of Internet search engines — which is hardly a long-established market itself — has done just that. “To google” has become common usage among regular

Web users, and Google Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., has established its service as the most popular search engine and become one of the most talked about technology companies of recent years.

Keynote Systems Inc., of San Mateo, Calif., surveyed search users twice in 2004. In both June and October, Keynote ranked Google first by customer experience, satisfaction and brand image. “People have a real affinity for Google,” says Lance Jones, senior manager for syndicated business at Keynote.

But that doesn’t mean the other search contenders are folding their tents and leaving the field to Google. In fact, according to Keynote, a couple may already be gaining some ground on the market leader.

From Keynote’s June survey to its October survey, Jones says, Google’s lead in the research firm’s “customer experience index,” which takes into account customer satisfaction, brand image and how likely users said they were to use the service again, narrowed noticeably. Both Yahoo! — the leader in the search market until Google came along — and the search capabilities of Microsoft Corp.’s MSN gained ground, although Google “still was fairly entrenched in that No. 1 position,” Jones says.

“Google has a strong lead no doubt,” says Vinod Baya, associate director of the Global Technology Group at consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, “and I think it will not be an easy job to overtake them.” But, he adds, “the big weakness of Google is it has no lock on users.” And Google’s rivals have learned from its success and improved their own services.

According to Jones, the runners-up have been tweaking their services in various ways as they attempt to compete with Google. Yahoo! moved its local search feature out of beta testing. MSN changed the way it presents sponsored links – making it more like Google’s approach with the paid placements clearly set apart from the rest. AskJeeves has added local search capability and other features such as a binoculars icon giving access to a thumbnail image of the page behind a link.

Baya says Yahoo! has an important strength in offering a complete Web portal with a variety of services. Because the company is stronger than Google in non-search areas, Baya says, “I think they have a chance to close the gap (in search) and even get ahead.”

MSN is farther behind, Baya says, but “you can never write off Microsoft. It has a tremendous amount of market power and financial assets to go after this (market).”

Daniel Read, vice-president of product management at AskJeeves, claims that while each major search company has its own proprietary search engine, his company’s is the only one that is significantly different from the others. The idea of ranking pages by how many links point to them – the pioneering of which was a key to Google’s initial success – is now universal. What AskJeeves does that the others don’t, Read says, is to analyse the pages from which those links come for relevance to the search terms. So if you search for information on golf, the first links you see are to pages that are pointed to by other golf-related pages, not those with links from pages that don’t deal mainly with golf.

Another AskJeeves innovation is MyJeeves, a feature that lets users copy links to pages to their own PCs, where they can create folders, search their accumulated pages, e-mail them to friends and so on. And the company’s Desktop Search tool can search files, images and e-mail messages on a user’s desktop, as well as MyJeeves files and the Web.

Lycos Inc. of Waltham, Mass., which has been around since the early days of search and is now owned by Korea’s Daum Communications Corp., says it is renewing its commitment to the search market.

Early last year, before the Daum acquisition, Lycos announced a strategy based on “personal connectivity,” emphasizing its Angelfire and Tripod online communities and new services like people and discussion search. But since the Daum acquisition that strategy is “old news,” says Adam Soroca, general manager of search services at Lycos. “The wheels are turning again here at Lycos search.”

The home page has already been redesigned, putting more emphasis on search functions, but Daum says that’s only a beginning. Lycos has completed several months of interviews with search users and has come up with a strategy based on needs it says are not being met by broad Web searching. The company plans several announcements this year, culminating in a major rollout toward year-end that Daum says will make clear how Lycos plans to differentiate itself.

Meanwhile Looksmart Ltd., though not even represented in Keynote’s rankings, says it will emphasize search tools aimed at vertical markets. An example is Teenja, the company’s recently launched search site for teens, says spokeswoman Carm Lyman.

The search market has seen some consolidation, but Baya believes that is probably over. “I don’t see why anybody would go away at this time,” he says. And while Google seems firmly on top at the moment, dominant technology companies have fallen from leadership positions before. You could google it.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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