By Harry McCracken | Monday, July 28, 2008 at 12:01 pm
Sifting through the blogosphere buzz on search engine Cuil today, just about everyone broaches the question of whether it might be a better search engine than Google–maybe even a more successful one someday. Judging from my experience with it so far, the real question is whether it’ll get marginally adequate, not whether it’ll topple the most dominant Web site the planet has ever known. But the chatter got me thinking: Why is it so $@#@$% difficult to beat Google at its own game?
It’s not like nobody’s giving it all they’ve got. Cuil is merely the most recent startup to be positioned as a possible Googleslayer: Others have included Powerset (recently snapped up by Microsoft), Wisenut (which is no longer with us), and Wikia. And every time Yahoo or Microsoft or Ask launches some feature which will supposedly prove an irresistable lure to Google fans, Google’s share of all searches only trends upward.
In short, nobody’s really even managed to give Google a flesh wound. As with Freddy Krueger, tryng to kill it seems to do more harm than good. But why?
1. The very audacity of the goal makes it nearly impossible. As Cuil shows, you can have a sterling management team, millions of dollars, and theoretically powerful technology and still come up with a mediocre search engine. Coming up one with that’s clearly better than Google is as ambitious as a goal can get. It’s like deciding to go to the moon in 1961–and when JFK declared that we’d do that, he sensibly gave the country eight and a half years to get the job done.
If I were starting a search engine, I’d cheerfully declare that my only desire was create something decent enough to get on the map–even if I had hopes of eventually crushing Google and thereby becoming a trillionaire.
2. You can’t do it through adding features. Google’s minimalism is its greatest asset. You don’t need to study up on how to use it; there are few hidden tools or advanced functions; on the surface, it’s amazingly close to the search engine it was a decade ago. The company has shown amazing discipline in the way it’s shunned clutter and complexity.
(At PC World, we used to discuss doing a cover story on Google Tips, but we kept deciding that the thing was so basically simple to use that we couldn’t come up with enough advice on how to get more out of it.
Ask.com is instructive here: The search engine formerly known as Ask Jeeves provides search suggestions as you type. It lets you narrow or expand your search terms. It melds disparate types of content like news, images, business information, and Wikipedia listings together on one page in a way that’s more elaborate than Google’s Universal Search. A feature called AskEraser lets you delete your search queries from Ask’s servers. You can skin the search engine with polka dots or a photo of an old Fiat in Rome.
It’s all pretty cool, and some of it is superior, in theory at least, to Google’s way of doing things. And despite it, Comscore says that Ask’s share of the search market has dropped from 5.0 percent to 4.3 percent since May of last year. (Meanwhile, it says Google’s share is up from 50.7 percent to 61.5 percent.)
It leaves you thinking that the one clear way to beat Google would be by releasing something even sparer and simpler that somehow delivered better results. I’m not saying that’s impossible, but it does seem unimaginably difficult.
3. It’s hard to beat Google by being more Googley than Google, but being different may mean being worse. Sorry to keep beating up on Cuil, but it departs strikingly from the Google way of doing things with its grid-like results page. It gives Cuil a certain amount of personality–but makes it harder to use than Google’s simpler, more straightforward approach.
4. Google isn’t one search engine–it’s a lot of them. It’s great at local search. It’s got a decent blog search engine. Google News is far from perfect, but still mighty handy. It owns YouTube. And it’s tying everything together by weaving results from all its search engines into one results page.
A Microsoft or a Yahoo or even an Ask can at least aspire to provide results of all these sorts, even if none of the major search engines have provided ones that are enough better than Google’s to put a dent in it. But even a very well-funded startup can’t launch an array of search products at once. Even if Cuil had nailed Web search, it would solved only one piece of the Google-slaying puzzle.
5. The Google money machine is a virtuous circle. Nobody else is remotely as good as Google at making search pay off through context-sensitive advertising. Which means that nobody else has as much dough to throw at making the search experience better. The fact that Google is the dominant search engine means that advertisers are more likely to give it money; that money helps make Google even more dominant; the more dominant it gets, the more advertisers show up.
It’s true that money alone can’t buy success–if it could, this story would be about how to beat Microsoft’s Windows Live Search–but it sure hasn’t hurt in Google’s case.