What is the exit strategy for low-traffic Internet Search Engines? This is a question I've been secretly wondering about for the past few months as I study the growing number of companies in this popular category.
No Lack of Contenders
Photo Source: Funny Hub
There is no doubt that as the amount of online content explodes, driven by easy low-cost publishing and the popularity of social networks, Search is becoming increasingly important as a strategic solution - both within an Enterprise for tying together all the Web 2.0 tools, and on the Internet, for making relevant content accessible.
On the Internet at large, Search is currently dominated by the 5 top-tier Search Engines: Google, Yahoo!, Live Search, AOL and Ask. There is also a second tier of engines that have captured enough buzz that they are likely to be sustainable for the medium-term: Hakia, Quintura, the yet-to-be-launched Powerset, and others. There are also specific Market segments where niche players are likely to thrive - Shopping, Jobs, Travel, Audio, Video and so on. Apart from these top tier and vertical segment players - what about all the rest?
I fully expected that many of these smaller, innovative search engines would get absorbed by the larger ones for their technology [for example, Microsoft acquired Medstory, and there are ongoing rumors of a simplyHired acquisition by Google]; but recently, a pattern has emerged that suggests a different possible outcome.
Search has always been a critical feature for large content providers; conventional wisdom until now for these sites was to implement this feature in one of two ways: either (i) using a site search widget from one of the mainstream search engines (as this blog does), or (ii) by creating a custom search engine based on Google, Yahoo!, Rollyo, Eurekster or others.
Increasingly however, large content providers want to harness captive search engines to improve the user experience. Here are some of the indicators of this trend:
- Yahoo! and AOL realized this almost from the start. With lots of premium content, they needed powerful search capability to monetize it well; so in 2004 Yahoo! dumped Google in favor of its own search technology. AOL leverages Google's search technology internally, but provides additional branding and UI changes. [John McKinley of Great Falls Ventures has a great article on the recent Search UI changes at AOL.]
- My friend Ashkan Karbasfrooshan at MojoSupreme also understood this early (way to go, Ashkan!) - very early on, they started their own search engine, MetaMojo, to better find and monetize the content they were creating in the MojoSupreme properties. [Here's my original post about MetaMojo.]
- More recently, Healia, a vertical search engine for Healthcare, was acquired by media and marketing company Meredith Corporation.
- Michael Arrington (TechCrunch) recently reported that the folks at the Sphere search engine are quietly building their business by closing deals with some of the biggest news sites in the U.S., including The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times (Tech & Science sections), TIME, Dow Jones Market Watch, CBS News, and others.
- Facebook's Aditya Agarwal recently wrote about the rationale for creating their own proprietary search engine.
- Saul Hansell of the New York Times, in one of his posts on the Bits blog, relates how the Times and Washington Post create specialized content for what he calls "presearch". Although it doesn't deal directly with search engines, this seems to me to fit as a part of the overall trend.
- In July, R.H. Donnelley acquired Business.com, a leading business search engine, directory and advertising network. According to the press release, R.H. Donnelley's online properties include Business.com, Work.com and the Business.com Advertising Network.
It's not difficult to envision a future where every major provider of content implements a powerful search capability optimized for their particular set of content. It will be interesting to watch how the major search engines leverage these capabilities to enhance findability and the user experience. For example, should they continue to directly index the actual site content, or is it more effective to delegate search tasks for each of these sites to their particular search engines, to enhance relevance of search results? More important - does this trend somehow lead us back towards walled gardens?
Charles Knight of the Alt Search Engines blog (mentioned above) has been working tirelessly to promote an alternative vision: to band together a bunch of alts to create a Universal Interface. This seems the best strategy for the group as a whole - although they bring to the table innovative approaches, interesting new user interfaces, visionary algorithms and specific data sources, the one thing that most Alternative Search Engines lack is a significant amount of traffic. By working together towards a common interface, they could improve that situation. Or a larger company could acquire several of these engines and put them together, achieving a similar effect.
If this vision gets traction, then Google had better watch out!