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Does the World Need Another Way to Search?

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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. [digg=]

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, 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 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.

30 Responses to “Does the World Need Another Way to Search?”

  1. Rachel

    Very interesting and very thought-provoking. I just wanted to add that in addition to Wize and Buzzillions, there’s a new consumer reviews website called I actually prefer this website as opposed to the others because it combines a sense of community with the reviews. It’s kind of like a Buzzillion Facebook hybrid. It’s really interesting to see how these sites continue to evolve.

  2. I always find it odd about these startups in the search engine industry. What can you possibly offer that Google or Microsoft are not doing at the moment? Let’s get real, everybody is focusing on these major engines in terms of their online positioning. Feel free to visit Google Labs and you fill many many new ways to search the internet. Or visit google code and have fun with all the APIs offered for free. I think there are many ways to use search engine results in a way that will create a competitive advantage for those fighting for success.

  3. Several folks have asked for more details on the $20B number.

    Half-way through last year we’d spent nearly $10B on advertising, according to a study published by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, “Internet advertising revenues (“revenues”) in the United States totaled nearly $10 billion for the first six months of 2007.” This was a 26.4 percent jump from the same period the year before. The IAB report also projected that revenues would hit $20B for the full year.

    A recent count shows that they went well past that. In a report released Monday, IDC indicated that spending totalled $25.5B, with a 28 percent jump in the fourth quarter alone.

    Along with the increase in ads is a switch from pay-per-view to pay-per-results. According to Morgan Stanley, paid clicks were up 52% year-over-year in the start of 2007. Most of the US growth over the last few years has come from search engine advertising.

  4. I also believe Google is number one search engine. I always use it and I have been using it for many years.

    These new search engines have very high competition. But it’s good to have diversity and change. New things can sometimes be good.


  5. Thanks for the feedback on this one.

    First, the $20B a year stat is an estimate from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which is currently tracking a $5B a quarter spend. Details and some useful stats are available at

    Second, Gabe, I tend to agree with your assessment — my point wasn’t to celebrate the flurry of new entrants, or suggest they were ready to challenge Google, but rather to ask why they might be appearing. Many of them are betas that only change one part of the search equation.

    And as iPhone man suggested above, the fight may already be over based on Google’s 60-plus data centers, homebrew networking switches, and massive distributed computing expertise. This alone may relegate the new search sites to simply being “visualizers” of Google — and others’ — data, which is a far easier thing to copy.

    But if the new firms’ only lasting effect on the market is to nip at the heels of the giants, then at least they’re spurring innovation.

  6. I believe that your point about delivering better results is spot on. Why should we have to face getting millions of search results every time we want to find something simple? I want relevant and accurate results when I search for something and I think part of the answer, at least for the moment, is in better use of vertical search.

    Vertical search sits nicely next to Google, you wouldn’t take a JCB digger to your local supermarket for your weekly food shop, so why use Google when you need to find something targeted and local? It’s a case of using the best tools for the job.

    Research by Convera last year supports this thought by telling the story that most people struggle with general search engines:
    • Only 11% always find what they are looking for on the first attempt.
    • Only 43% always find what they are looking for after several attempts.
    • 86% said VSEs (vertical search engines) would locate content more quickly.
    • 85% believe VSEs would offer access to content not indexed by popular search engines.

    The last point might not be true but that’s peoples perception for you. Vertical search isn’t the solution for everything but at least it’s helping people see the light between the trees.

  7. Google has won the search engine war for one important and often overlooked consideration: computing power and bandwidth. Being a great search engine has a lot to do with how deep and how quickly a search engine can span the web, Google is amazing at this. Fast and furious botting behavior. I suspect that no less than 20% of the web traffic is google bot’s and that’s a lot of bandwidth. No startup can afford that size pipe.

  8. Alastair, I typically love your articles, but this week’s is just ridiculous– these search engines are a joke.

    Wouldn’t it actually just make sense to wait until Google gets better (which it does every day) than to wait for one of these completely far-fetched startups to get off the ground and start delivering anything close to the results I need or expect?

    This is really insulting– I’ve tried all of these (the ones I could, that are out of beta testing) and talked to friends that have tried beta versions of the ones I couldn’t try out for myself– and they were all inaccurate at best and complete spam-city at worst. Are there really no better sites to promote? And if not, was there really no other topic to explore this week other than the beyond played-out “alternative search engines?”

    Come on Alastair– you could have at least done 10 minutes of homework on these sites before practically endorsing them on GigaOm. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt for one off night here, but really- we (your readers) deserve better.

  9. Very comprehensive piece. I think that part of the answer here is that the term ‘search’ has enveloped so much space that the tendency is to get blinded by the curse of knowledge.

    There are unserved, under-served and undiscovered segments of the search market out there, to be sure.

    Here is a recent blog on the people search, people pages, online persona aggregation space, for what it’s worth:



  10. As one of the new search entrants ( I would agree there are many
    challenges. Information and content availability is not the problem. A search on any given keyword will yield millions of results. Finding the right keyword to use has itself become a search and I think the question increasingly becomes what can we do to interface and manage vast amounts of data. This way people can easily navigate through information to find what they are looking for.

  11. Results are Dead

    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.

  12. Those interested in a visual way to search the Web can try, 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).

  13. 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.

  14. 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.