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The International Writers Magazine: Search

Simon Bishop

We all know, and most of us love, Google. It is by far the most visited website in the UK, accessed over three times more often than the second placed site. It is a business that has true global presence and is ingrained as a household name. Not many other brands have become part of everyday language and taken their place in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Search Engines
Nov 2007 USA/Canada
Google 53%
Yahoo 23%
MSN 13%
Ask 5%

Others 6%
What we tend to forget is that Google is not the only search engine out there. Yahoo, Freefind, MSN and Ask all vie for business. For the vast majority, Google is the first port of call online when we need an answer, because we know we can rely on the results. That is why we return to use it again and again, and why it’s market share is still increasing, even though it has more competitors than ever. But is it as ubiquitous as we think? Are there worthwhile competitors out there, and what can they offer that Google cannot?
To a certain extent, the success of Google is down to it being in the right place at the right time. The founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, realised that the burgeoning World Wide Web would become a useless minefield of disparate information unless it was catalogued and searchable. Their vision was first formed at Stanford University, and culminated in Google being released from beta status on 21st September, 1999.

Whilst other companies spent millions on marketing and brand building exercises, Google relied purely on providing an excellent service and superior technology to ensure organic growth almost entirely down to word of mouth. This has served Google well, and since it’s launch the growth rate has been nothing short of phenomenal. Last year’s financial results tell the tale: 2006 saw revenue of $10.6 billion.

There is a prevailing culture among the tech-savvy underworld that large corporations are somehow malevolent. Microsoft has suffered greatly due to this opinion; Indeed there are many websites dedicated to anti-Microsoft sentiment. With Google, however, things were different. The founders cannily latched on to the zeitgeist, and adopted the unofficial slogan "Don’t be Evil". This simple phrase was promoted as the central core of their ideal. Users liked this, and flocked to the fledgling site in droves. The varnish has come off this edifice recently due to Google’s self-imposed censorship in China, but overall, it is still a trusted brand.

So who are Google’s competitors in the cut throat world of search? Some of the popularity of the other engines could be down to their placement within "parent" sites. For example, Yahoo search not only has it’s own page (, but is also embedded in the portal – the world’s most visited website. It would therefore be fair to assume that some of the search traffic was down to "convenience users" – people who were within Yahoo portal and used their search as it was convenient to do so. Indeed, only 13% of visitors to a site went directly to the page.

Google differs in this respect, in that the parent site is a simple search box on a simple, fast-loading white page. There are no other reasons to visit the site than to search. This simplicity of purpose appealed to users who were looking for answers quickly.

This has begun to change though, with the advent of iGoogle in May 2005. This is a personalised homepage that users can add content, gadgets, and web feeds to. The page contains a Google search box, so again it could be assumed that some searches are driven from here.

Google’s competitors currently face the issue of how to improve on a service that many consider to be excellent. The ultimate goal is to serve the most pertinent, useful and up to date data based on a user’s query. The focus is now on filtering results, for example, removing pages from commercial enterprises when a user is searching purely for information. This is most easily explained by Yahoo Mindset, a beta page located at Once the search has been performed, the user is empowered to adjust the result set to be biased towards "shopping" or "researching".

To find out where the future lies, Google Labs ( is a fascinating area and highlights the astonishing number of projects and new technologies that the company is focusing on. Google label this site as a "technology playground", allowing their developers a playpen to showcase ideas to the public. One of it’s most recent additions allows users to see an alternate view of results, such as in a timeline. Searching for "Thomas Jefferson" shows a timeline of results ordered by date – you can try it here: This of course would be far more useful to a researcher than a "normal" user.

It seems therefore that search is beginning to become tailored to individuals, who are increasingly demanding and expecting quick answers to their ever-increasing number of queries.

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© Simon Bishop December 2007

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