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Pew Study: All Search Engines Being Equally Intrusive, Google's the Best

Pew Study: All Search Engines Being Equally Intrusive, Google's the Best

People really do care about privacy, a Pew study has found, but they still go to Google, which collects vast amounts of user data, in droves. Why aren't rivals looking to take advantage of these privacy concerns? "Essentially, Yahoo and Microsoft are doing very much the same thing," said tech analyst Greg Sterling. In the search world, this is not so much business as usual as just business.

By Peter Suciu
03/09/12 12:17 PM PT

There is no question that Google is the dominant player in the search engine arena, and a new survey released Friday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 83 percent of U.S. search engine users rated Google as their preferred search engine, despite concerns about the company's data-collection and advertising practices.

About two-thirds of search engine users disapproved of the collection of information on their searches for the purpose of personalizing their future search results, Pew reported. An equal proportion of all Internet users disapproved of being tracked for the purpose of getting targeted ads.

Yet Google keeps growing.

"There is a paradox in this report," said Greg Sterling, founding principal of Sterling Market Intelligence. "People have a generally favorable opinion of Google as a search engine, yet people inevitably have a negative connotation about personalization."

However, the privacy concerns are not likely to seriously affect Google's market share, Sterling told the E-Commerce Times.

"Microsoft is slowing eroding the market with Bing," he added, but noted that it would take a much greater effort to dethrone Google.

King of Mountain of Search

Google's dominance is also unique in that the 1990s and even early 2000s saw one search engine giant beget the next. Lycos, Alta Vista, Infoseek and Hotbot all had their respective moment in the sun, and for a while it seemed that Yahoo -- complete with its campy TV ad campaign -- would be the search engine to beat. Then came Google, and no rival has managed to chip away at its dominance.

"Back in 2004, there was far more of a mix in the market," said Sterling, "whereas in 2012, [Google] is totally dominant. It is in the lead, and this past decade has been the story of Google growing and growing."

Even Microsoft's Bing has grown only at the expense of other search engines, not at Google's. Even as Bing grows, it has a way to go to reach Yahoo, though, which ranked this week at 6 percent -- a distant second behind Google, down from 26 percent back in 2004.

Google, meanwhile, has transformed its dominant position into a serious money-making machine, and generated US$36.5 billion in revenue in 2011, up from $3 billion in 2004.

Potential Rivals

With that amount of money to be made, the question to ask is why aren't rivals looking to take advantage of the privacy concerns as leverage to take down Google? The reason is simply because most search engines aren't really that different.

"Essentially, Yahoo and Microsoft are doing very much the same thing," said Sterling, who noted that search queries are used to determine which types of ads are showing up. In the search world, this is not so much business as usual as just business.

"Everyone can say that they don't want to be tracked," Sterling remarked, "but they want relevant searches, which essentially require tracking."

Nor would Google let the crown slip away so easily.

"Despite increasing fears surrounding online privacy and sharing of information, Google still remains the predominant search engine for many consumers," Scott Steinberg, head of technology consulting firm TechSavvy Global, told the E-Commerce Times. "This is a position that isn't likely to be eroded overnight, as the average, everyday consumer still remains largely unawares and agnostic to online search solutions.

Additionally, most Web users are also creatures of habit who fall back into comfortable routines, especially as pertains to online services they've been using for years on end, Steinberg added.

However, the sheer size of the online search market and growing fears surrounding the sharing of private data do present a potential opportunity for new competitors.

"If they can piggyback on rising awareness for these concerns, it could happen," said Steinberg. "A marketing or public awareness campaign that sways even a small share of the potential industry -- say, 5 percent -- away from Google would still provide huge opportunity for existing or emerging players. But to succeed, the venture would need to pursue alternate business models beyond targeted advertising, which relies on tracking users' personal data."

These business models could include affiliate sales, online purchases, sponsored placements, and virtual classifieds, but would that be enough?

"This would also require a public awareness campaign that could be used to steal people away from Google," said Sterling. "The bigger issue is how Google will respond -- but this could also be ammo for its critics who are concerned over privacy.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project did not respond to our request for comment.


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