Searching for Your Inner Google

It's as harder than ever to make it in the search business. So, naturally, times have never been better to topple Google, say those living in the search giant's shadows.

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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.

/zimages/3/28571.gifRead 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.