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Google’s Achilles Heel

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Written by Sramana Mitra

Does Google not, like everyone else, have an Achilles heel?

Before I attempt to answer that question, let me just say right up front that when it comes to this topic, I am highly biased. I want Google to have competition.

Biased or not, however, I have found a few vulnerabilities in Google’s relentless march to success. The most significant of those is the increasing verticalization of the web. Or more specifically, in the rise of vertical search engines.

Here’s an example.

You are looking for a software engineer job in Palo Alto, Calif. If you insert this query into Google, you will mostly turn up offers to take you to job boards and job search engines like SimplyHired, Dice, and others that are matched based on keywords.

Google, however, doesn’t know that you would consider jobs within a 25-mile radius — that nearby Menlo Park, Redwood City and Mountain View fall within your realm of possibilities as well.

Now try this query on, a job search engine that collects listings from all over the web. You can specify the radius of your search. The engine would offer to filter by company, city, job type, etc. making your job search experience richer, more precise.

Similar dynamics exist in other major verticals — travel, real estate, auto, health, etc.

Google has so far stayed focused on horizontal, generic search with a simple, one-bar user interface. And it has brought them a remarkably long way.

However, as users get more sophisticated, they are discovering brands that offer richer user experiences customized to the dynamics of the vertical.

Investors have poured a lot of money into these vertical search engines. Within the “jobs” category alone, more than $70 million has been funneled into Indeed ($5 million from Union Square Ventures & NYT), SimpyHired ($17.7 million from Foundation Capital and News Corp.), and Jobster ($48 million from Trinity, Mayfield, Ignition, Reed Elsevier). And the “online jobs” market is expected to be worth $10 billion by 2011, which explains why so much money is chasing it. has over five million unique users, indicating that the dynamics of the entry point to the web are changing. A recent roll-up deal led by Kayak in the travel vertical, which I discussed in my Forbes column, highlights the ambitions of newer players to build independent large companies. Kayak acquired SideStep, bringing together over 12 million unique visitors and $85 million in revenues.

So what is likely to be Google’s response? Build? Buy? Abstain?

According to VC Gus Tai over at Trinity Ventures, “Google will fail if they try to do separate vertical brands,” he said. “It’s like Wal-Mart vs. Tiffany. It’s about a deeper brand experience that Google can never offer.” Gus knows. He was on the board of Blue Nile, an online diamond jewelry brand that took on Amazon and eBay and built a business worth more than $300 million a year.

Conceivably, the verticalization we saw in e-commerce will now get repeated in search. Google will, of course, remain a very large search engine company with a huge market cap. But other $500 million-$1 billion businesses will get built in each of the large verticals and will, within just five to seven years, give Google a run for its money.

I explored the “deeper” brand experience with Gautam Godhwani, CEO of SimplyHired. “We are focused on enriching the entire lifecycle of the user experience,” Godhwani said. “We not only want to help candidates search for jobs, but do an outstanding job in understanding the content of the resume and be able to match it with the right opportunities.”

Imagine a day when you have your resume posted on SimplyHired, and even when you are not looking for a job, highly relevant opportunities are presented to you by your Careerbot. “We are only 10-to-15 percent along the way to our vision,” Godhwani said. SimplyHired powers job search for over 3,000 sites, including MySpace and GigaOM.

Indeed’s CEO Paul Forster likes the idea of a roll-up in the jobs category, but said no concrete discussions have yet taken place. I offered both Gautam and Forster the idea of LinkedIn as an interesting possibility around which to roll up the category. (LinkedIn has already built critical mass with a 2008 projected annual revenue of $100 million.)

At the back of my mind is a vision that is much bigger than vertical search. It is Web 3.0, a summation of context, community, commerce, content, vertical search and personalization.

In the end, new brands able to build deep, rich, highly personalized Web 3.0 user experiences would become Google’s real competition.

I am eagerly waiting for these brands to emerge.

53 Responses to “Google’s Achilles Heel”

  1. WOW, you hit it on the head “only large enough verticals will have enough Total Available Market (TAM) to build big businesses. The miscellaneous will stay with Google.” Mitra knows her stuff. Where are the vertical networks of today. Can you name the top 6 vertical networks?,,,,, My question to you is who has the greatest strategic vertical online network of web properties on the internet? I know the answer.

  2. Hi,

    Search itself is quite incomplete if it doesnt propel an action among the user. For example, if I search for a book – there is always a purpose to it. In most cases, I want to know the price of the book or at which bookstore (online or offline) is it available. That’s something Google is not able to provide. (an Amazon does a much better job here, but thats because of it’s natural status as an e-bookstore)

    The future evolution of search is creating ‘actionability’. It isn’t enough to search for an item and get a set of advertisements which may or may not be related to the search string. There is a strict e-commerce bias in my comments here, but advertising by itself cannot shoulder the online economy. The economy doesnt run on advertising, but on trade (e-commerce). Search should propel that.

    Best Regards,

  3. First of all, keep in mind that Google is not a search company. It is an advertising company. So the more ways that Google can develop to drive advertising $$$ through them, the more successful they’ll be. In fact, in many cases, the advertising tools — AdWords and AdSense primarily — are so efficient that the ads listed for a given set of search terms are better than the hits one gets from the search results. That’s the key that is driving a lot of Google’s dominance. Other companies such as Microsoft and Yahoo are having trouble competing given the volume of searches on Google.

    Google has done many things to get away from simply web based search advertising, I don’t have a break out of their revenues, but I’m pretty sure that vertical search has not somehow slipped under their radar. It’d be interesting to see the break out of ad $$$ from vs. Gmail vs. other properties.

    The issue with vertical search engines is the same as for any site. How do you attract traffic to your site so you can display the ads that generate the $$$ — or conversely how do you set up a distribution network via syndication or other means that will do the same.

    There are a lot of web advertising opportunities for ad buyers, and vertical search is one of them. Vertical search engines have been around for about 10 years. Travel sites for example are vertical search engines. The real metric to see is whether there is a move by advertisers away from general search engines toward vertical search. That will indicate if it is an Achilles heal or not. Personally, I don’t think it is.

  4. great post. I think that you’re pointing out the obvious. Sorry.

    They have a few achilles heels – the big problem with your thesis is that Google has too many ‘heels’. Expect some flameouts but their successes are already huge. I’ve heard this argument about microsoft many times in 1988, 1990, 1992, 1995..

  5. Google has advanced options for searchs, and they fulfill all my nessecities for years!!!

    you can eather user advanced comands like -amazon or +amazon and others to filter your search, and if you dont know how to use it you have the advanced shearch link …

    At least I never had problems with it…

    Good post btw!

  6. Bottom line is that does vertical search even matter if it doesnt make much.., or any revenue?

    Sites like Yahoo! Hot Jobs, Dice, Monster, etc have their ownership on job search, and Yahoo! Travel, Travelzoo, Kayak, etc on travel search…, Google isnt directly in these core offerings.

    All Google cares about is that people go to Google to search first.., the results can even suck, but there are plenty of sites that want that traffic and will pay $1 in adwords to get the link from them.

  7. Google has persisted in having difficulties of providing an improved user experience (ux), especially as it relates to the nuances of different types of searches.

    Will Google get beyond technology enabler and finally provide an improved and dynamic user experience, search and other products that help guide you to what you REALLY want, or cede user experience to companies like yahoo (et. al.)?

    In the end, Google may not have the internal ‘spirit’ for the non-techie, non-geeky experience, but may “just” be the engine behind search and other technologies (e.g. maps, images, etc.).

    I discussed these topics, not too long ago… take a read…

    And, Enjoy!

    Jeremy Horn
    The Product Guy

  8. Hilarious. I just wanted to note that most everything in your article here is a little late to the game; Sramana Mitra has been covering this exact phenomenon for almost a year.

    And there she is now!

  9. I think, in the next 5-7 years, Google will coexist with the other vertical brands just fine. All verticals are experiencing a move in ad dollars from print to advertising, so the overall online advertising market is growing.

    However, 5 years out, when advertisers have to choose between Google versus a vertical brand, they will choose the vertical.

    Also, only large enough verticals will have enough Total Available Market (TAM) to build big businesses. The “miscellaneous” will stay with Google.

  10. Gus Tai’s point about brands is a good one. The reason that Google won’t come to dominate every niche is that niche-specific brand will always carry more weight for users in that niche

    I consult for a couple niche social networks, and their brands alone are a huge driver of their relevance for users in those communities. Even if the functionality is the same, the fact that it’s NOT just a group of users MySpace or Facebook is really important. We’ll see the same thing with vertical search and Google.

    But that’s not really an achilles heel either. It’s just an area of the web that Google won’t dominate. I’m sure there are others.

  11. Information = Data in context.
    Context = Data describing meaning of data.

    Google depends on people describing/linking to data to give it meaning or put it into a quasi context. Hence Google bombs, people take advantage of any “stupid” algorithm.
    Or limit the data and you create an artificial context, this is how vertical search gets better. But it’s just one idea of innovation away from Google to incorporate that. One can also create an artificial context by creating a network db linking all known data describing a context and ranking any new data to see how good and where it fits, a little harder to do.

    In other words I wouldn’t bet on vertical search, to simple to beat.

  12. As Chris mentioned above, Google has already started some of this work so there’s no way they’re sitting on the sidelines. An even better example is travel searches, where typing in airport names will pop up boxes to enter the departure and return dates, and then link to several travel sites:

    It’s just a matter of time before the parameters they use become more defined and extensive. And the travel companies don’t have reason to worry because if anything it’s driving more traffic to their sites. So it’s win-win for them and they won’t see it as competition (except for competing with other services offered by Google).

    An interesting result of this (particularly the travel vertical), is it may also make the barrier to entry for a smaller travel site a whole lot harder. I’m sure Google won’t add more than a handful of services to the list of options to avoid clutter and confusing the user.

  13. We can also search Jobs, if you add Jobs feature in Google Toolbar, you can find, search engines to Google and find plenty of jobs by “Add search type” in Toolbar. Google Toolbar offers tons of tools, I doubt others can compete with it, but more the competition is better, it will just push Google team to work harder.

  14. I too would like to see Google have some decent competion but I am afraid I have to disagree with you on where it will come from. I think that Google arose from and continues to dominate due to the public’s need for a single go-to place for the majority of their search. Sure, it won’t work for absolutely every vertical but it is great for most other things. Even for the verticals, I think you might find that a lot of people start on Google, relying on it to point them to the best website for the vertical search that they wish perform. So I don’t think that vertical search engines will upset Google nearly as much as you hope – no more than Blue Mile has hurt Amazon really, probably even less.

    I think Google’s killer is more likely to come from an alliance between one of the other major search engines and one or more of the dominant social networking sites (Facebook, Bebo, LinkedIn etc), but not in the way that most people have been talking about. I have posted more about this on my blog but in a nutshell, the integration could be effective with three ‘simple’ features:

    1)A tab for results tailored based on your profile(s) on social networking site(s) and the contributions of these sites to your APML file;
    2)A simple button on the Search results page that lets you turn your unresolved queries into questions for (selected members of) your network plus anyone who has subscribed to answering questions on that topic;
    3)The ability to do web search with the above two features, either directly on the search engines site or within your social networking sites.

  15. google base, IT jobs in palo alto :

    the question is why they have paused on marketing or pushing googlebase. not enough people upload to it, and not enough people search using it. I think most information holders (other jobs sites) don’t want to give google all of their data. and normal people don’t want to post on there because it seems obscure and geeky.

  16. The major weak spot is the promise of the future of people power. Things like “Ask Sunday” or “Mahalo” or “Now now” are either people powered or “crowd sourced”

    The more technology allows for all of us to contribute almost real-time, the more the “algorithm” will reveal its limitations.


  17. Dimitrios Matsoulis

    It is not easy for Google to keep its huge share of online searches in the changing world of the internet. The post was very succesful in describing that changes occur as users become more sofisticated and rely more on the net as a tool for their activities. I think the key is to be specialised to avoid the full wrath of Google, but not too much in order to have a wide enough base. As stated in the post, travel and jobs are ideal for this.

  18. Good post. I am glad there are competing search engines, this will just push Google to do a better job. With advanced search features, Google also can do whatever the others are doing and you can specify a location based search as well. Also, if Google searches based on our location like it does in Google Maps, where it remembers your current location, then this advanced search feature won’t be necessary.