AltSearchEngines Essay Competition

I recently won first place on an AltSearchEngines essay competition. Charles Knight asked readers of his new blog to contribute ideas on how alternative search engines can increase their collective market share. Here is my entry.

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Google and Yahoo currently have a stranglehold (75%) on the search market for one simple reason – for the past six or seven years they have offered users the most relevant search results. Through long-term success these two have achieved mindshare, thus significant path dependencies exist within their core user base. MSN, AOL, and Ask, own the next 20% of market share. This means that 95 out of every 100 Internet searches are owned by five companies (actually four companies, if you consider that AOL now displays Google results). This exercise asks us to consider the remaining 5% of alternative search engines as being one general entity and we are tasked with increasing the Alt’s market share to 7% or beyond.

Nearly every alt engine has its own unique quirks, positive or negative, and a considerable number of these engines do indeed offer quality of output that rivals most any search result from the major 95% market share holders. Yet most Internet users have never heard of nearly any of them. Before making direct suggestions on how to compete by creating a better search experience, it is more important to consider the products that already exist in the alt search market, and understand what drives the 95% of search users to the big five engines.

Consider the three second-tier search engines, MSN, AOL, and Ask.com. MSN has the benefit of being Internet Explorer’s default homepage (used by more than 70% of Internet users), and they’ve spent many millions working on their search technology to catch up to Google, but it clearly isn’t there yet in terms of quality. AOL has the benefit being the country’s largest ISP, therefore able to place its homepage in front of millions of people every day – but they do not offer links to Google’s advanced tools (which require a Google login). Ask.com is a well-funded company with a simple domain name that continues to spend millions of dollars driving traffic, and though their search results have improved over the years, the results are still not yet generally considered superior to Google or Yahoo. The obvious question is why would 20% of the market utilize inferior search services? The answer is likely that less sophisticated users make up a greater percentage of this 20% than Google’s and Yahoo’s user base.

For more evidence of this, cross-reference Quantcast.com’s demographic information. It indicates that Google and Yahoo attract a larger percentage of users in the 18-34 age group (the most Internet-savvy age group), generally coming from higher income households.

http://www.quantcast.com/google.com
http://www.quantcast.com/yahoo.com
http://www.quantcast.com/aol.com
http://www.quantcast.com/msn.com
http://www.quantcast.com/ask.com

There are two reasons why the quickest path to increasing market share is to focus marketing and education efforts on the demographics which make up 20% owned by the second-tier search engines. First, these users are likely newer to the Internet, and more open to trying new ways of surfing. Second, it is easier to demonstrate higher quality search results from an alt-engine over the second-tier engines, rather than Google and Yahoo, whose users are affected by stronger path-dependencies.

To attract this new audience, marketing materials must focus on how your alt-engine makes life easier and improves the online search experience; how it provides quicker and more accurate information, thus creating a more comfortable online experience.

Much can be learned from Ask.com’s growth over the page five years. Previous to their disastrous 2007 marketing campaign (“The Algorithm Killed Jeeves”), emphasizing simplicity and user-friendliness was precisely their approach. Ask created effective television commercials that in effect spoke the following message: “Go to Ask.com – type in any question in the world – and we’ll give you the answer.”

Remember, before your alt-engine acquires a Yahoo-sized market share, it has to first get an Ask.com and MSN sized percentage. Grab the users at the margin first – and then go for the big time.

-Michael Hussey CEO, PeekYou.com

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