Search Davids Take Aim at Goliath Google

Wikia, ChaCha, Ask Set Sights on $20.7 Billion Market

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NEW YORK ( -- Alison Agre recalls the first time she used Google -- it was 2001, and she was a college senior. Her older brother asked, "Haven't you used Google yet?" And she was hooked. Today, she's downloaded the Google toolbar onto her computer, and when she's on MySpace, she uses the search bar "powered by Google." When she flips open her laptop and launches a browser, the MSN home page pops up, but she usually bypasses its engine and instead heads to Google for a search.
Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin are facing upstarts such as Wikia and ChaCha that are looking for a piece of the search market.
Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin are facing upstarts such as Wikia and ChaCha that are looking for a piece of the search market. Credit: Google

She's no anomaly -- Google's share of search queries has climbed steadily from less than 20% in 2001 to 45% in '06, according to ComScore, and way beyond that according to Hitwise. Even with Yahoo holding steady at just below the 30% mark, according to the same metrics, Google has a certain ownership of search. "Google's in my mind," said Ms. Agre, an insurance-claims team leader in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Challengers keep coming
That's a problem for those trying to challenge the $6 billion giant, from well-funded conglomerates such as IAC's to indie startups, such as the Wikia search project. But despite Google's dominance, don't think the challengers won't keep coming. Analysts are as bullish about search as they've ever been. J.P. Morgan last week raised its 2007 search-revenue estimates more than $3 billion to $20.7 billion.

Bill Tancer, Hitwise's general manager-global research, has tracked Google's share of the search market for quite some time. Over the summer, he posted an entry on his blog suggesting that after several months of fluctuating between 59% and 61%, perhaps Google's share had hit a wall at around 60%. But for the four weeks ending Dec. 30, it climbed to 63%.

"We've all been guessing at what the saturation point would be," he said. For that four-week period in December, Yahoo captured almost 21.6% of the market, MSN about 9.5% and Ask 3.7%. AOL and were both below 1%.

Open-source search
Google's ever-increasing share of the search market has not deterred would-be competitors. The latest is a project out of Wikia, the for-profit company co-founded by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. (Wikipedia is run as a separate, nonprofit company.) The plan is to create an open-source search engine that uses human deduction as well as a machine-driven algorithm like Google uses.

Wikia CEO Gil Penchina said a human element is necessary for search, which he believes is starting to fill with spam as sites use optimization tricks to increase their rankings.

"Have you ever gotten spam e-mail and noticed how easy it is for you to notice spam?" he asks. "Humans are better at finding and catching spam results than machines, so our project is to build a human and machine spam filter for the web."

When asked whether it's daunting to go up against such a market leader, Mr. Penchina said: "If you have a better mousetrap, people find a way to your door."

Ad spending to no avail
But building a better mousetrap might not be enough. After spending $61 million in media advertising in January through September 2006, according to TNS Media Intelligence, has been able to eke out only slight gains in share. Yahoo has spent its own $21 million on advertising during that time period and hasn't made any big gains.

"Google's just consolidated its lead," said Greg Sterling, principal of Sterling Market Intelligence. "The question is, how much money do you need to make and how much share do you need to make your tool make sense?"

Mr. Penchina notes that because Wikia's search project is being created with a thousand volunteers, it will be able to survive on less revenue than Google requires. He also is counting on those volunteers to provide a built-in grass-roots marketing team for the new search service.

Scott Jones, founder of ChaCha, another search upstart, employs a similar strategy. His is a guided-search model -- a concept that has helped the leading Korean search engine, Naver, thrive while Google's been unable to make inroads there. (Google's also had a slow start in China, where Baidu is the leader). With guided search, humans act as real-time guides for searchers who want more help or are searching for a topic a machine may find ambiguous. His crew of 25,000 part- and full-time guides are his marketing muscle, he said.

A different offering needed
For marketers, a more competitive field would certainly be welcome. "The market we're in right now is still competitive, but it's shifting to one where it's less so," said Matthew Greitzer, director of search-engine marketing at Avenue A/ Razorfish, New York. He said having more significant players in the space drives both innovation and effectiveness. Yet the consensus among the search experts interviewed for this story is that to succeed in stealing share from Google, any competitor will have to offer a service markedly different.

"Nobody wants to compete with Google on algorithmic search, so maybe it's [got to be] a different way to display or categorize or find information," Mr. Greitzer said.

After several years of great publicity and word of mouth, a recent dust-up in the blogosphere has some questioning whether the tide is about to turn for Google. In December, it began adding "tips" to the top of search results that promote its own services -- and that action irked some industry watchers. Google has since removed the tips, but the maelstrom that ensued is indicative of a growing distrust people often have of the biggest, most powerful player in a particular market.

Reneging on its motto?
Firefox co-founder Blake Ross first raised issue with the tips in a Christmas blog post titled "Trust is Hard to Gain, Easy to Lose," which set off a roaring discussion in the blogosphere of whether Google was reneging on its "Do no evil" motto. Mr. Sterling believes Google is running into what he calls "the Microsoft problem" -- people didn't necessarily dislike Microsoft's products but feared one company being in such a powerful position.

"People don't like a single powerful entity being so much in control," he said. "It's this fear that Google controls the internet in some powerful way and that they're a gateway for so many things."

Whether that sentiment will stay confined to the Google-watchers in the blogosphere or trickle into mainstream media may make all the difference. In the meantime, Wikia's Mr. Penchina said he understands what his incubating search engine is up against.

"We're awed by how much it takes to do this, and it'll take thousands of volunteers," he said. "That's why it's an open-source project."
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