Search Engine Wars – A Shifting Battle Plan?

The fact that the name “Google” is often used interchangeably with the verb “search” today speaks volumes about the current state of the search market.

“Right now it’s Google’s game to lose,” Kevin Lee, executive chairman and cofounder of search marketing company Didit, told the E-Commerce Times. “They are synonymous with search, and thus far they’ve been doing a good job of executing, keeping it lean and relevant.”

How long that dominance will continue is not yet clear. Yahoo, Microsoft and a number of others are trying hard to wrest control away from Google using a variety of tactics they hope will convince at least a chunk of the market to switch.

First Eyeballs, Then Money

Much of the talk about search engines today focuses on ways to monetize the technology, but really, the search war is being fought on two fronts, Lee said: “One for the eyeballs, and another for the money.”

The money only happens once the eyeballs are there, he adds. “You have to get the traffic first. Until you have a significant chunk of traffic, you won’t even be able to get advertisers’ attention.”

Getting the traffic, of course, is no easy feat if you’re not Google, and traditional approaches to attracting consumers have met with only mixed success. “Even if you’re better, you won’t necessarily be able to convince users to switch to you unless they can perceive the difference,” Lee pointed out. “In the old battle between VHS and Betamax, every technical person agreed Betamax was better, yet VHS won anyway.”

An advertising campaign by, for example, garnered underwhelming results, and other traditional techniques haven’t done much better, Lee noted. One notable exception has been a game contest used by Microsoft to draw users to Live Search, which “has moved the needle,” he said, in part because the product has enough unique features to stimulate trial.

Indeed, “it does still start with a great product,” James Lamberti, senior vice president of Search Solutions for comScore, told the E-Commerce Times. “If done right, search is a win-win for the consumer and the engine, combining a paid ad with highly relevant information that would have taken a long time for the consumer to discover otherwise. The epiphany around search is that synergy.”

Search Box Still Reigns

There are a number of different strategies being tried out in the hopes of creating a better product. Many of those focus on the search box, which is “still the dominant method of enticing users into becoming advertising customers — there’s nothing like a search box to know what people want,” Whit Andrews, a research vice president with Gartner, told the E-Commerce Times.

Most such efforts focus on trying to find new ways to categorize and rank information so as to maximize the relevancy of search results for users. One challenge inherent in that task is fighting off attempts to manipulate result rankings.

“The biggest unseen problem we’ve got coming is what I call the hostile information ecosystem,” Andrews said. Included in that phenomenon is “Google-bombing” and other such deceptive efforts to alter search results. People sometimes create pages that aren’t what they say they are, for example, just to attract attention. “This has already been a problem for more than 10 years, and we’re going to see a lot of different behaviors within and outside search intended to affect results,” he noted.

“We live in a world where we assume search knows what it’s talking about,” Andrews added. “Most of the time it does, but it’s very hard to tell when it doesn’t.”

Social Search

Google tends to focus on implicit techniques to evaluate the content on the Web. Yahoo and other companies, however, are exploring explicit strategies to decide which pages are most important for a particular search term, Andrews noted.

“By investing in Flickr and, for instance, Yahoo has said, ‘we’re going to try to take advantage of when people explicitly discuss the results they got on a search,” he explained. In a blog, for example, a user might describe a search they did on the term “puffins” and tell readers which result they thought was the best one.

Such social search techniques can be approached in many ways, Andrews added, but in general the strategy will be increasingly important. “The important thing is that the company with access to the most people who are the most passionate is the company that wins,” he explained. “There’s a magnetic effect, so that the more people are involved, the more they want their friends to be involved, and the site gets better and better.”

As site quality improves and traffic increases, new advertising inventory naturally results. Yahoo’s purchase of Musicmatch Jukebox, for example, is both a strategy to create a deeper relationship with users and a new, more focused search set on which marketers can advertise, Andrews said.

Indeed, “improving the product and creating new advertising opportunities are not mutually exclusive,” Andrews noted. “It’s very possible to do both with the same technologies. If you can deliver a good page, you should also be able to deliver a good ad — that’s absolutely fundamental.”

Beyond the Main Box

Looking forward, another, often-underutilized strategy for increasing monetization is focusing beyond the main search box, Lamberti added.

“We think the next frontier is in query boxes that aren’t necessarily on the main search engine, such as searches within MySpace,” he explained. “There’s a tremendous opportunity in this area. The fact is, all of us search daily on the Internet on a variety of places, for a variety of reasons, and that’s a huge opportunity for monetization.”

eBay has already experimented with the approach on the half a billion searches that take place within its site each month, Lamberti noted, and other sites could too. When a user searches on the Yahoo Movies database, for example, “there’s a tremendous opportunity for Warner Bros. and other movie companies to capitalize on that site search” with an ad, he explained.

“Where we see huge volume, and where search is most powerful, is when it is truly exploratory, done by users with an open mind set purely to seek information,” Lamberti said. “You could argue that the social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook have become portals, and so are the most logical new areas for general searches.”

A Branding War

Ultimately, the question of which search engine will win can’t focus on just product or just monetization, because the two must necessarily go hand in hand.

“We’ve seen Google ratchet back its advertising coverage over the past year because it is really committed to the product and the end user,” Lamberti noted. “The engines that are winning are really committing to the product, because they are starting to realize that the strength of their brand lies in performance and relevance.”

As the market matures, the power of the brand is becoming increasingly critical, so that in some senses, the search engine war has become a branding war, Lamberti concluded. “This is a mature space now, and there’s a lot to be said about how difficult it’s going to be for even the best to break through to the mass market,” he said. “It’s only going to get harder for new guys to come on.”

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