The search business model is in question
Lately alternative search engines are trying to present themselves as the ‘anti-Google’. The New York times recently published an article about Blekko that presented the search startup as just that. Blekko’s main goal is to provide quality results to its users, with a special emphasis on fighting the web spam that Google’s business model promotes. While competitors in the search space have all complained about Google’s model, no one, including Blekko, has yet proven an alternative business model that works. However, I believe a new model will inevitably emerge.
Problems with Google
Google’s Panda update and efforts to stop spam in search results were a big step in bringing the issue of web spam to a more mainstream audience. However, the fundamental reason for these talks was that the ‘Google model’ of search monetization is broken. Shallow sites like eHow can still make tons of money by creating nearly duplicate pages on how to tie your shoes based on slight variations on keyword phrases they deem profitable. Google could rank these sites lower, but this would lead to fewer clicks on their ad network, which serves as the main source of revenue for sites like eHow. There is a misalignment between users and Google – what’s good for the user is bad for Google.
Problems with being #1
There have been fewer complaints about Bing’s model promoting the same type of spam that Google promotes. However, Bing’s model is essentially the same as that of Google. The difference is that few businesses pay to advertise on Bing, and fewer people search Bing. As a result, fewer people are trying to explicitly exploit Bing’s algorithms.
During the Future of Search event sponsored by Bing, Harry Shum of Bing claimed that the industry looks up to Google as it sets standards for search quality. I think if Harry wants Bing to succeed he should look up to himself and think about what he would do differently in Google’s position. New and better features is not necessarily the answer. Every question that Google hasn’t answered yet is an opportunity for someone else to answer it. And even Google admits, they are not perfect.
Either Google will find the solution or someone else will
Given these circumstances, the question is to what extent the search business model requires restructuring. An ‘anti-Google’ will emerge – even if it’s Google.
As we become more sophisticated searchers, it is also possible that different search engines will serve different needs. When we want aggressively anti-spam results, we turn to Blekko. When we’re concerned about privacy, maybe we go to Privacy Finder. Don’t forget that Yelp can be considered a player in the search industry, which means this prophecy is almost true already.
I think it’s quite possible that these search engines are not banking on overtaking Google, but hoping they can make a business out of catering to niche audiences. I know this breaks the ‘winner take all’ mentality typically associated with the Internet. However, as search becomes more sophisticated it can become more like ‘social media’, in which there are several major players in different categories (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.). Maybe Google (or the leader then) can reconcile all these needs into one platform, but maybe not…
People talk about factors like local, mobile, and social playing big roles in the future of search. The latest social integration on Bing might give Microsoft an extra 0.5% market share for the quarter. But whoever finds a new business model for search will benefit a lot more than that – whether it’s Google, Bing, Blekko, Facebook, or some new player. More competition will hopefully help us reach alignment between users and business faster. I’m rooting for whoever can make that happen.