SEARCH WARS

TIME Magazine has an interesting piece on the Web search engine competition.

Today we’re all Zenodotuses. Each of us has access to more data than anybody has ever had before, but still the trick is to find what we want when we want it. Given the size of the Internet–estimates run around 500 billion documents and counting — that’s no easy task. Internet surfers do about 550 million Web searches a day. Amass that many people anywhere doing anything and somebody is going to try to sell them something. The market for advertising to those Web searchers is worth about $2 billion, and it’s growing at a rate of 35% a year — far outpacing any other advertising medium. What’s more, Google, the reigning sultan of search, is looking vulnerable. The combination of big money and big opportunity has attracted some mighty big players, including Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon. There’s a street fight brewing over Internet search that will make the browser wars look like thumb wrestling.

But for a minute forget about the big numbers, the millions of customers and the billions of dollars. Think about what’s at stake culturally and socially in the search wars, and all those zeros start looking pretty paltry by comparison. The Internet is swiftly becoming the primary repository of the bulk of human information. Search is the way we get at that information, and companies like Google wield enormous power. They reflect our common interests and shape how we learn about the world with their rapid-fire search results. This isn’t just about dotcom juggernauts duking it out for stock options and bragging rights. Whoever wins the search wars owns the keys to the kingdom of knowledge. That’s a big responsibility. Are search engines up to it?

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Remember how hard Yahoo tried to turn its brand name into an everyday word — those TV ads with the guy with the big Afro asking “Do you Yahoo?” If you do Yahoo, you probably don’t call it that. But chances are you Google.

The piece tells the story of some guys basically just muddling through, without a clue as to how they would make a profit. Apparently, it’s worked:

This year Google will make an estimated 30% profit on revenue approaching $1 billion, according to Safa Rashtchy, an analyst at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray. Right now 32% of all Web searches go through google.com. That number shoots to around 70% when you count searches on sites like AOL.com, which licenses Google’s technology.

The story goes on to say that Google is quite vulnerable from recent moves by Microsoft–big surprise–and, oddly enough, Amazon.

Google’s most enigmatic foe isn’t a search engine at all. It’s a bookstore. In October Amazon debuted a service it calls Search Inside the Book that’s both simple in conception and staggering in its implications. Amazon scanned every page of 120,000 books into a database, and it now lets customers search the books’ complete contents online. In one stroke, Amazon made a new and immensely valuable kind of information available on the Web. Zenodotus would be livid with envy. “I would compare it to the invention of the encyclopedia,” says Joel Mokyr, professor of economics and history at Northwestern University. “If this is further developed, as I hope it will be, you may one day be able to sit in a village in Nepal and look up every book in the Library of Congress! Think about the implications of that: the knowledge of all times may one day be accessible from every spot on this planet. That’s one of the most democratic things I can think of.”

And Amazon founder Jeff Bezos isn’t done yet. Behind a smothering veil of secrecy, he’s setting up a new search company in Palo Alto, Calif., called A9.com. “All I can tell you is that we’re working on some interesting things that we simply cannot talk about at this point,” says Bezos. The scuttlebutt is that A9 will be focused on product search, so it will compete less with Google than with Froogle — a relatively small slice of the search market but potentially the richest. Amazon — which is still glowing from its first profitable nonholiday quarter ever — has been working with a shadowy start-up called Groxis, a company that dabbles in curious, arcane techniques for graphically displaying search results.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. In October Amazon debuted a service it calls Search Inside the Book that’s both simple in conception and staggering in its implications.

    Please. This has been inevitable since the first network database search capability was unveiled, but the barrier has always been putting the information into the database. Amazon’s finally paying a bunch of data entry people a few bucks an hour to accomplish it.

    Just staggering. </sarcasm>