Google : Victim of Its Own Success?

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One of the persistent complaints for the last year or so about Google is that it’s too powerful now — owning 45% to 60%+ of Internet search. To that end, next year will see the launch of several general-purpose search engines that seek to become the “Google killer.” The latest — like candidates running for president — to add its name to the list is Wikiasari.

The oft-cited justification for new search engines is: “search is broken,” or some version of that mantra. But really these guys all want a piece of the almost $7 billion US search market. And it’s very very unlikely that if Yahoo!, Microsoft, AOL and IAC have not been able to take share from Google that a new me-too engine (with some novel twist) will do so.

Notwithstanding the competition in search, the practical reality of a single commercial entity effectively becoming the gateway to the Internet, as it is for many, is of growing concern to some people. The existence of the SEM/SEO industry and the text of various lawsuits point out how critical a good ranking is on Google.

Back to Wikiasari … it might have the right approach but for the wrong reasons.

The right argument might be not “search is broken” but that if search is indeed the navigational backbone of the Internet it should be a public resource that uses some combination of human input and machine ranking to facilitate information delivery and retrieval. Nutch and Lucerne, among the potential pieces of infrastructure for Wikiasari, are such open-source search engines. But they’re not widely known.

One problem is funding. If it’s going to be VCs or private capital of any kind there’s going to be an expected return, etc. That just creates another commercial engine likely to go down in flames amid all the grandiose claims and hype. All this implies government intervention (Yikes!). And there’s the question of quality; how good would any publicly funded or volunteer, “open-source engine” be? (Wikipedia is something of a response to that question. Also DMOZ.)

Probably huge investments would need to be made to compete for usage. Because this idea only works if there’s a real alternative out there to Google. I’m not talking about quality of results but market share. (Of course there are other engines that offer comparable — some would argue better — results. But without sufficient market share it’s like a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear.)

It’s like they used to say in college: “Equally attractive non-alcoholic beverage.” But we all know that when you’re in college there’s no such thing.

Greg Sterling is the founding principal of Sterling Market Intelligence, a consulting and research firm focused on online consumer and advertiser behavior and the relationship between the Internet and traditional media, with an emphasis on the local marketplace.

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