Searching for Your Inner Google

By Ben Charny  |  Posted 2006-02-27

Searching for Your Inner Google

Exalead, a search engine company based in France, says it has found its inner Google. So watch out, says co-founder Francois Bourdoncle.

With what Exaleads got going for it, Bourdoncle believes itll take his firm just three years to be among the top five Internet search providers worldwide.

Bourdoncles sentiment is indicative of the times in the search industry. There is a growing feeling that Google, Yahoo and Microsofts MSN, the worlds top three search engines, are now more vulnerable than ever before to challengers.

Its a rare bit of bravado. After all, 97 percent of the billons of Internet search queries each week continue to go through just five providers. Three of them, Google, Yahoo and MSN, host eight of each 10 queries.

In fact, search market leader Googles brand is so entrenched in the public conscious, "google" has become a verb meaning to search the Internet.

Yet it seems that just at a time when the barrier to entry to the market is at its highest, so is the chance to upset the longstanding search leaders, according to interviews with executives attending this weeks major search trade show, Search Engine Strategies, in New York.

The sentiment is mainly because of growing customer dissatisfaction with the top engines, their innovative lulls, privacy-challenging practices and faltering customer service.

Read more here about searchs customer service problems.

"There is room for competition here; theres room for another Google," Bourdoncle argued during a recent interview. "The economy now fully realizes that having three companies owning so much of the Internets traffic is not sustainable. Were betting this market can support the emergence of another Google."

Exalead will take a big step toward its goal this week when, to coincide with SES, it will introduce a new version of its business-class search product thats been six years in the making.

The SES show will be teeming with companies like Exalead that are operating, sometimes for years, in the shadows of the majors that say the timing is right for a breakthrough.

Also coinciding with the show, Ask Jeeves, the fifth most popular Internet search engine, will be making a play at the top three. It says it has changed its name to and retired its long-standing butler mascot, the butler figure Jeeves. Its new search features a way to further personalize the number of search topics.

Ask Jeeves has been growing at better than 20 percent, with its fourth-quarter share of the U.S. search market climbing to 6.5 percent from 5.4 percent a year ago.

Smaller search operators also believe theyre ready for a breakthrough. Features like PodBop, which searches based on a geographic location and podcasts by bands set to appear in those locales, is gaining recognition.

Another is TwoCrowds, which lets people contribute to predictions and share them with others. The search engines two most popular predictions, and by theory the ones most likely to actually come true, are currently "Apple Computer will release a phone" and "Google will advertise on TV."

Theres also room for different search engine business models, believe firms like Edgeio.

The search engine plumbs RSS feeds, an increasingly popular self-publishing technique, to give Web interests "of all sizes the means to control how their content is published, discovered and consumed."

Next Page: At stake: Billions in revenue.

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Whats at stake is billions of dollars in revenues.

Advertisers in the United States were on track to spend $4.2 billion on paid search in 2005, a 35 percent increase over 2004 spending, according to JupiterResearch. Radar Research and IntelliSurvey found U.S. and Canadian advertisers spent $5.75 billion on search engine marketing in 2005, a 44 percent increase over 2004.

The paid listings market is expected to increase from $4 billion in 2005 to $7 billion in 2010, resulting in a compound annual growth rate of 12 percent.

Internet research firm Nielsen/NetRatings reported the total number of Internet searches in the United States grew this year by 55 percent, with nearly 5.1 billion searches performed across approximately 60 search engines during December 2005.

The last time the market supported the emergence of a top-tier operator was about eight years ago, when the first of Googles data centers, built inside founder Larry Pages college dorm room, went into operation.

Read more here about Googles data center upgrade.

Google soon turned heads because it was easy to use, something taken for granted nowadays, but in 1998 it was a major chore to use a search engine.

Over the next six or so years, Google would enjoy the kind of market build-up and success thats been experienced by only a few companies.

While Yahoo hung tough—it trails Google by only six percentage points—MSN, AOL and Ask Jeeves lost much of their market share and fell from top-tier contention.

When the dust settled, three companies—Google, Yahoo and MSN—emerged to dominate the market. As of 2005, these three firms controlled 81 percent of all Internet search. AOL and Ask Jeeves rounded out the top five, with single-digit percentages.

And with that, came lots and lots of cash in the hands of just a few.

But Googles fallen out of favor in some circles, following a series of uninspiring new features, public relations blunders and customer service fallout.

Yahoo and MSN have suffered the same kind of blows to their integrity, mainly after their practice of turning over search terms to federal agencies was recently disclosed.

Theres also been an innovation lull. While the top providers were matching each other feature for feature, or expanding into new areas like blogging, RSS feeds and instant messaging, startups and others have been focusing purely on search.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on enterprise search technology.

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