Despite Google being the undisputed leader in the search market — despite the fact that many of today’s Internet users still don’t know how to use a search engine — hundreds of startups are trying to build a better search tool. Why?

Google’s dominance in online search hasn’t stopped hundreds of startups from trying to build a better mousetrap. Each is trying a new twist on search: geography, crowdsourcing, tags, user annotations, learned hierarchies and timelines. With $20 billion spent on online advertising every year, a killer search application can make a lot of money.

But will new types of search catch on? A recent study of the Google Generation, conducted by University College London, found that “users make very little use of advanced search facilities, assuming that search engines ‘understand’ their queries.” Many of today’s Internet users still don’t know how to use a search engine, preferring instead to type a domain name into the search box (which is why Yahoo is a top search on Google and vice-versa.) The reverse, known as type-in traffic, involves typing a search topic into the address bar to find results.

So why are there so many new search sites springing up on the Internet?

Building a better mousetrap

There are two main reasons companies want to reinvent search. First, new approaches can deliver better results.

  • Some search tools use additional context — such as location, tags or the wisdom of crowds — to find more relevant information. Circos, for example, provides clusters of themes so users can tailor their results easily.
  • Some search for new kinds of things, most notably people. Redux helps people find people, and Delver and Streakr tie search results to friends’ relationships. Even e-commerce is changing, with sites like Wize and buzzillions combining search with opinion rankings to recommend purchases.
  • Others present the information on a map (like Atlaspost), a timeline (the way Capzles does for photos,) or a dynamic hierarchy (like iLeonardo) to make it easier to understand.

Second, new search is worth more money.

According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, pay-for-performance advertising overtook impression-based advertising in 2007. Advertisers don’t want to pay for eyeballs anymore; instead, they want results.

Combining ads with search results makes them relevant, encouraging visitors to click on them. The more relevant the results, goes the theory, the more you can charge an advertiser. So the new crop of search tools can command greater revenue for targeted ads.

And if those searches have a social element, they’re even more influential. Word-of-mouth marketing is the basis for most viral marketing campaigns. Peer recommendations cut through our natural spam filters, making us more likely to consider an offer. So social sites don’t just offer more targeted ads — the ads are more likely to be acted upon.

A crowded space

Despite the potential upside, new entrants face significant challenges. Consider recently launched European social search site 123people, started by serial entrepreneur Markus Wagner and backed by incubator i5invest. The company aggregates contact information from a wide range of online sources, including Facebook, Hi5, Xing, YouTube, Last.fm and studiVZ.

Even this can be dangerous. Harvesting data from other sites is common practice online, but some social sites are claiming this is a violation of their terms of use. In a recent, well-publicized example, networking site LinkedIn stopped job site Notchup.com from importing contact and job information.

Fortunately, 123people isn’t just about aggregating social content. The portal also pulls in media, tags and comments from a wide range of sites, and crawls country-specific sources. It then lets users claim, vote and tag profile data.

The site is generating significant attention, with over 100,000 unique visitors in the first 72 hours and over 1,000 searches a minute. That’s great traffic, but people search is already a crowded space. 123people faces a large number of competitors like Spock, Wink and Zoominfo. And with good reason: Social search is a hot sector of the online industry.

Social search gives the big sites an advantage

“I think one way [search] will be better is in understanding more about you and understanding more about your social context: Who your friends are, what you like to do, where you are,” Google VP Marissa Mayer told VentureBeat in a recent interview. “It’s hard to imagine that the search engine 10 years from now isn’t advised by those things.”

With all of this innovation, Google certainly isn’t waiting for someone else to reinvent search. It’s armed with millions of search results a day, a huge amount of computing power, and a promising social model that crawls the Net to discover social relationships.

Google and other Internet giants like Facebook have a big advantage. Future search will depend heavily on what the engine knows about you: Where you live, what your friends like, and what you’ve found useful in the past. It’s unlikely that the average consumer will invest time and effort in building redundant online personas across several search engines in order to improve results.

If we’re going to tell the Internet about ourselves, we’re likely to do it on one of the big sites. They’ll be the ones who can use what they know about us in the ways that are most useful.

If the flurry of search startups can tie into the social graph of Google, Facebook and others without biting the hands that feed them, then they have a chance of succeeding. But if they’re betting their business on changing the way people search, they have a lot of work ahead of them.

  1. Very informative.


  2. The Telegraph had a good piece on this a few weeks ago looking at a study in the UK that stated “Our aimless meanderings in cyberspace as we hunt for what we’re after amount to around 15 days per person per year.”, so perhaps we don’t need another search engine, but specific sites that optimize various tasks like travel.

  3. Jon Udell’s take on the (alleged) Google Generation report: http://blog.jonudell.net/2008/02/08/mythbusting-the-google-generation-report/

  4. Google gives people what they’re looking for, and we’ve grown to expect this, but they’re no good at finding stuff if you don’t really know what it is you are looking for.

    What Google offers today is just the tip of the search iceberg. Few verticals have established canonical information compilations, so the masses are unaware of the value of reputation systems and of [information] authorities.

    And UGC is way too much news-oriented, too little 101-style content. I see many companies in the space seeming unaware of a basic SE paradigm, that the users know what they want. That’s crap. Information is easy to get. I know enough on almost everything that interests me. I want stuff that I don’t know about, I want it brought to me with a reputation for being worth my time to learn, I want it to be accessible for learning, so I can take my time specializing in it.

    The bulk of users simply scurry around the net. It’s pathetic. The average level of consumed content can go WAY up. It would be the fulfillment of the dream of the Internet as an educational medium. It might not be of immediate commercial value (it will hurt advertising if most content, which is low-level, gets no traffic) but it will change the world as we know it.


  5. The title of the above post is an interesting one: Does the World Need Another Way to Search? My answer is: Of course! I strongly believe in the concept of “Ideal Solution” or what some people may call “Free, Perfect, Now.” The leading search engine, Google, may be free and instantly presents search results but Google Search is not perfect! Google Search is not ideal! Please, allow me to explain.
    I see search as consisting of two components: computer (machine/indexing) search and human search. Getting one’s desired results ultimately depends on human search and exploration of results that have been ‘short listed’ and presented by the computer. Only the human searcher knows what (s)he really wants, the computer can only guess. Consequently, it is in the area of human search and exploration that traditional search engines like Google and Yahoo are at their weakest. Human search and exploration constitutes the ‘blue ocean’ of the search industry and therefore offers great opportunities for disruptive innovation.
    Google search, like other traditional engines, is okay when you find a satisfactory match of your desired result on the first page; most ‘satisficers’ find their ‘results’ on the first page. They are satisfied when they see a topic that apparently closely matches what they desire. But I’m an ‘optimizer’ and I’m continuously searching for the ‘perfect’ match or best result. And that means, going beyond the first page and sometimes, beyond page 20 (Obviously, I don’t trust computer search engines)! When I have to go beyond the first page of results, I find that using a linear list of search results such as in Google and Yahoo tends to be boring and time-wasting. And that’s why we are offering a new (fractal grid) technology to facilitate’human search,’ a new and intuitive way for people to visually navigate and explore an almost infinite amount of information. The experience is similar to that of applying Google Maps to the navigation of all types of information(search topics, images, videos, news, etc.). Our first application of the fractal grid technology is in the area of search (results). Hopefully, the fractal grid approach would become a more common way for people to not only search but explore information in visual, fun, and intersting ways to find their desired result especially on the Internet. At the moment,it’s our dream. Maybe, one day it could become reality.

    Rod King.

  6. Expect privacy to become a HUGE concern going forward as search engines try to tailer search results to individual users. It’s not the better mouse trap that’s going to win, it’s the more intrusive one. Great article!


  7. Lately, I stopped using google in favor of using GoodSearch and donating money to the non profit I work for. Feel free to try it!

  8. Those interested in a visual way to search the Web can try http://www.searchcrystal.com, which lets you search and visually compare multiple engines in one place. You compare, remix and share results from web, image, video, blog, tagging, news engines as well as Flickr images or RSS feeds.
    searchCrystal can be a useful research tool since it helps you find highly relevant results (the more engines that find a result and the more highly they rank it, the better the result) and see the quality of the results provided (the more agreement between the engines, the higher the quality).

  9. Results are Dead Saturday, February 9, 2008

    Results are now a commodity. Does anybody really believe that Google’s results are materially better than Yahoo’s or Ask’s?

    The future of search lies in building something bigger than just another results page.

    For those who are interested in something interactive, a new player just emerged in this space ManagedQ. They’re absolutely worth checking out.

    ManagedQ basically makes the results themselves instantly searchable. Just start typing and you can find what you need. It also layers on top a semantic layer that extracts the key Person, Places and Things for your search.

    According to Alexa, they’ve already surpassed Powerset’s reach. They’ve only been out a few weeks and are still way early (plenty of bugs, sometimes the app is slow) but they’ve been making great strides.


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