Still haven’t found what we’re looking for

Google is seeing renewed challenges from a number of competitors

Google is seeing renewed challenges from a number of competitors

A recent flurry of activity by the world’s biggest technology companies has sparked a new phase in the long-running battle for search engine supremacy. Search giant Google has long been the one to beat and has brushed aside numerous competitors to date; however a mixture of acquisitions, re-brands and partnerships by its rivals gives the company its toughest challenge yet.

Microsoft unveiled its new search engine ‘’ in late May, claiming it had finally found a platform that would threaten its main rival. Just a month later it announced a deal with former rival Yahoo which will see the latter use Bing’s search technology on its own site, effectively handing over its market share to Microsoft in return for advertising revenue and putting Bing at the front of the charge against Google.

“Search has always been extremely competitive…we need to get search right all the time, because our users are only ever one click away from switching to another search engine,” says a spokesperson for Google on the threat posed by Bing and others. “It’s great that people have multiple ways to find information they’re looking for, which is why we’re constantly working to make sure our search results are as fresh, fast, comprehensive and relevant as possible.”

Google are not sitting on their laurels, of course. The company recently announced a public testing phase for what is dubbed ‘Caffeine’, a major update to the way the company manages its search results.

“Caffeine is a rebuild of our core web indexing system which we hope will help us improve in the four core areas of search which include: freshness, speed, comprehensiveness, and relevance,” says a Google spokesperson. “[It is] a more robust indexing system which will enable us to do more and do more faster.”

The company claims this upgrade has been in the works for some time now and is part of the regular cycle of improvements made. It is, however, an important moment for Google as it avoid undermining what has made it successful while also improve to ensure Bing does not steal a march on it.

Seeing Microsoft out-do Google in search would be a novelty – Bing is just the latest in a long line of search platforms and brands devised by the company to challenge Google’s dominance. Before Bing there was Live Search, which was proceeded by Windows Live Search, which came after MSN Search; none of which did anything to really challenge Google.

It is no surprise that so many companies have put so much money into winning a piece of search engine market share. Last year Google enjoyed revenues of $22bn most of which came from web-based advertising. It is a testament to the success of Google that the company’s name is now accepted as a verb that means ‘to search’. In Ireland at least, Google is believed to account for over 90% of all search queries made.

However search engine market share was not always as coveted as it is now, in fact it it was quite the opposite a few years ago. Even as late as 2003 Yahoo treated search as a loss-leader, outsourcing its search engine on to Google. While others tried to be what people searched for, Google saw the potential in being what they searched with.

Since then Google has been blazing a trail and others have been struggling to keep up – but that may be changing.

“From what I’ve seen of the changes on Google of late – it’s just my opinion but I think some are more reactive,” says Richard Hearne, owner of search engine optimisation (SEO) and online marketing company “Google are historically very proactive and they did their own thing; they still maintain that they do but I think there’s no way that some of what we’re seeing is a competitive response.”

One of area Google has accepted it is playing catch-up in at the moment is ‘real time search’, which gives users access to information that may have just been published. Standard search engines like Google can take some time to find and process information before it can be presented to the end user in their results, while the algorithm used in real-time search engines like the one on can do so instantly.

“Well, Larry himself has said he wishes we were better at real time search. We’re constantly working on improving search, but we have nothing specific to announce right now,” says a Google spokesperson.

Social networking site Facebook clearly sees this as an area worth investing in also and has acquired FriendFeed recently in a deal believed to be worth €33.4m. What Facebook plan to do with the company is not yet known, nor is the impact real-time search will have on what Google and others do.

“Google is probably just fearful that their search technology wasn’t built for real-time – it was built to give the best results – and that it may be their downfall in some way,” says Richard Hearne. “But they’re two very different propositions; if someone is researching something they don’t want the latest information they want the best.”

Mr. Hearne also points out that information that is made available instantly cannot be monitored in the same way and so is more likely to be spam.

While it is impossible to know where the market will go now and what result these changes will have on it, it is arguably a good thing for customers to have viable options available to them when they search for information. But what about the companies and individuals that have tailored their site to be ‘Google friendly’ – will they have to look at overhauling what they do in order to rank well on the likes of or even a new ‘Caffeine’-fuelled Google?

“From what I can gather Caffeine won’t actually change the way sites are indexed so it won’t have an impact on SEO in that way, what may happen is the sites are indexed quicker,” says Richard Hearne. “Bing has a slightly different algorithm… so if you want to optimise for one you won’t be able to for the other.

“For the most part, though, if you rank well on one site you’re going to rank well on the other.”

An edited version of this article was published in Business & Finance magazine on the 27th August 2009.

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