By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 1:47 am
It’s the Web’s biggest straw man, and it keeps getting built up, torn down, then built up again. I speak of the idea that a startup is a potential Google killer–a notion that once meant that it promised to be a better search engine than Google, but has lately morphed into suggesting that a Web company of almost any sort could end up dominating the Web the way Google does today.
The phrase dates to at least 2001, and its usage consistently follows the same cycle: At first, pundits thoughtfully wonder if a promising new service might be a Google killer…and then, once it’s clear it’s an unlikely scenario, they cockily explain why it won’t come to pass. The latest example is going on right now, as the Web judges the new Wolfram|Alpha service. With the term ringing in my ears once again, I was moved to review fourteen examples of alleged Google killers, and to consider whether any of them are, in fact, likely to crush Google to death. My overall conclusion? If anyone compares your Internet startup to Google, it’s time to panic–it’s more of a curse than a compliment.
What is it? A search engine launched by Norway’s Fast Search and Transfer in 1999, the year after the founding of Google. In its time, it was indeed fast, with a humongous index of pages. All in all, it was a solid product–in fact, there was a time when I generally turned to it before I tried Google.
Who called it a potential Google killer? Here’s ZDNet Australia wondering out loud if it might be one.
How’s it doing at killing Google? You’d have to say that the signs don’t look too hopeful. In 2003, Fast sold AllTheWeb to Overture, which itself was snapped up by Yahoo a year later. AllTheWeb still exists, but when was the last time you used it? (Net Applications says its market share has flatlined at .01%.)
Any lessons? You can be pretty darn good, and still fail to kill Google.
What was it? A “Question Answering search engine” which encouraged users to enter searches as plain-English questions, and attempted to provide answers in the results, rather than making you click off to another site.
Who called it a potential Google Killer? The Digg user who recommended it.
Did it kill Google? No. It was bought by Answers.com in 2005, and is now a feature of that site. Three and a half years later, I’m not too impressed by its answers to most of the queries that popped into my head:
Any lessons? BrainBoost showed that you can’t kill Google by undertaking one of technology’s most daunting challenges (interpreting natural-language queries and responding with relevant responses) with few resources and lackluster results.
CuilWhat is it? A search engine, launched in July 2008 by an impressive team of search veterans, which claims to be the world’s largest one in terms of pages indexed.
Who called it a potential Google Killer? Many of the reports on its launch–especially those published before people started trying it.
How’s it doing at killing Google? The moment people started using Cuil, its name became a synonym for botched Internet launch, and pundits began mocking the idea that Google had anything to fret about. Today, site-traffic analysis company Quantcast, which ranks Google as the Web’s #1 site, places Cuil at 24,967.
Any lessons? It may be impossible to launch a search engine that’s very good starting on day one, let alone one that’s better than Google. Also, quantity of pages indexed isn’t the principal measure of a search engine’s quality.
What is it? The world’s most popular social network.
How’s it doing at killing Google? Well, better than most–Quantcast ranks Facebook as the fifth largest Web site, and it’s still growing rapidly. And even though Google is still in robust good health, it clearly pays attention to Facebook’s doings and responds, as witness its launch of OpenSocial after Facebook introduced its application platform. But Facebook is still figuring out how to turn all those obsessive users into an advertising windfall.
Any lessons? It’s at least slightly easier to create something that competes with Google in popularity than it is to compete in profits.
What is it? Essentially a Wikipedia-like repository of human knowledge stored as database fields rather than Wiki articles.
Who called it a potential Google killer? Well, Search Engine Watch brought up the term when it blogged about a New York Times article that said that Freebase’s ambitions were Google-like in their loftiness.
How’s it doing at killing Google? Freebase is as good an example as any why it’s unhealthy to talk about any startup killing Google, or even competing with it. While it’s still small and not remotely a household name, it’s a neat site whose traffic is up 800% over the past year. It’s doing just fine, and the sign that it’s a truly big deal will be people thinking of it as a formidable alternative to Wikipedia, not that it runs Google out of business.
Any lessons? Before you kill the biggest giant on the planet, you need to be capable of killing some slightly smaller giants. Actually, you should probably begin by killing midgets, and work your way up.
What is it? Microsoft’s search engine.
Who called it a potential Google killer? Multiple people over the years, as Microsoft has added new features, such as the Cashback kickbacks for users who use its shopping geatures. Here’s but one example.
How’s it doing at killing Google? Badly. Net Applications’ search-engine market share numbers show Live Search’s share as fluctuating over the past couple of years, but never exceeding 2.6 percent. Google’s share? Eighty-one percent, up from 75 percent two years ago. Still, it’s a safe bet that when Kumo, or whatever the next version of Live Search comes out, the talk of killing Google will crop up all over again.
Any lessons? Even billions of dollars at your disposal doesn’t ensure that you can do away with Google, or even inflict a serious flesh wound.
What is it? A San Francisco startup, founded to build a natural-language search engine.
Who called it a potential Google killer? For awhile, practically everybody, riffing on a couple of early-2007 New York Times articles (here’s one) that spoke of it rivaling Google, while saying the chances of it actually doing so were smal.
How’s it doing at killing Google? Not so hot. To date, the only search engine Powerset has released is one with the limited goal of letting you find stuff in Wikipedia via natural-language queries such as “What did Stephen King write?” Also, in July 2008, Powerset agreed to be acquired by Microsoft. If Powerset aids in the eradication of Google, it will presumably be as an enabling technology in a future version of Live Search, not as a stand-alone service.
Any lessons? Killing Google is a long-term project; don’t let anybody talk about you doing it when you’re only beginning to figure out how to do the dirty deed.