CHICAGO—Finding out that virtually everyone is using their product usually scares the stuffing out of most industries.
At worst, the dreaded "s" word—saturation—can trigger cataclysmic shifts in the business world because theres simply no new customers to gain. One glaring recent example is the U.S. cell phone industry, which went through a spasm of consolidation once cell phone use reached saturation levels.
Yet, the Internet search industry has been hearing, for three days now, how theres virtually no Internet user left that hasnt latched onto a favorite search engine, which sounds like bad news. Whats the industrys response? An impression of Mad Magazines famous cover boy Alfred E. Newman character saying "What me worry?"
They smile in the face of overwhelming numbers. Some 91 percent of those using the Internet are routinely searching for information during their Web sessions, and its been that way for the last three consecutive years, according to statistics that Nielsen/NetRatings analyst Jon Stewart presented on the first day of this weeks Search Engine Strategies Conference & Expo.
Of those 90 percent, nearly half will start an Internet session using a search engine. And those people that are searching are doing more of it. Overall, this year so far there have been five billion individual searches, up from three billion last year.
But those attending the conference here say search companies have no reason to worry, mainly because theyve adjusted in two divergent ways.
Newcomers to the search industry say they are managing to survive by offering specialized searching into a single type of Web content or a new kind of search technique.
At the core of each of their business models is that the big search engines cant find everything on the Internet, or fill every single need.
There have been a number of recent new "verticals," as search engines are honed to focus on a narrow set of topics. When asked to provide a list of hot search companies, an editor for the Web site SearchengineWatch.com included four verticals. At this weeks Search Engine Strategies Conference & Expo, the new search engines vying for attention were invariably verticals.
One example of a new vertical engine is Washington, D.C.-based IT.com, which this week introduced what it believes is the first-ever search engine that hunts for Web casts, which are video broadcasts over the Internet.
And in a sign of the health of the vertical search industry, theres merger and acquisition activity.
The latest was New York City-based Answers Corporations purchase of Brainboost, a search engine where queries are in the form of questions not individual key words.
For major search industry combatants, "search is the new portal," which is a kind of smorgasbord of Internet services available at one locale, said Nielsen/NetRatings Stewart.
Indeed, Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., America Online and other major search engines have branched out into making full text of books available online, offering Internet telephony (in which a broadband connection doubles as an inexpensive home phone) instant messaging, e-mail and the list goes on.
Partly because of saturation, major search engines have also begun creating new ways to keep users on their pages longer.
Efforts include allowing Web wanderers to tag Web sites, so they can be included in their own personalized search services, or to search different kinds of content, from videos to Web logs (blogs) to subscription news services.