Opportunity Still Knocks
Despite 80% market dominance by two key players, niches and crannies of tremendous opportunity remain for content providers here in GooHooLand. For all of their apparent power, online-only brands have never created their own blockbuster shows and personalities. "Which profile is the one we look at on MySpace?" asks 360i's Berkowitz. "It is X-Men III. Those with a history of creating great content that people want have a strong edge."
And for a product with so much money and attention behind it, search remains staggeringly unfriendly. "I find the results pages of all the engines abysmal," Outsell's Richard complains. The only thing that has changed about that tech-dweeby scroll of cryptic and randomly relevant results is the additional ad clutter. "If you built any other product with that kind of user interface, it would fail," he says.
Alternative content aggregators like Factiva are innovating much more visibly, offering both annotated results clustered by sources and keywords and cross-navigation via content tags. Microsoft, still a minor player in search, is extending itself wisely into set tops (IPTV), game consoles (Xbox 360), and mobile (Windows Mobile), in ways that anticipate convergence perhaps more adroitly than Google or Yahoo!. Anyone who believes that any 800-pound gorilla has a permanent headlock on anything on the web suffers fatal amnesia: think Netscape...GeoCities…Alta Vista…AOL.
And ultimately, users may expect more from search than the big two or three can deliver. "The mass market search engines disappoint B2B professional users," says Jeff Killeen, CEO of GlobalSpec. With 2.5 million registered users searching this portal for engineering patents, standards, information, and plans, GlobalSpec demonstrates that there is room for engines that shape specialized, proprietary content into task-specific formats for special interests and workflows.
Google and Yahoo! may have turned search into the default interface for a digitized world, but that just means people with various interests and in various fields will expect more granular, mission-critical material. "Standards and patents are not available on Google," says Killeen. "You will see more publishers create [vertical] search engines that map against specific tasks." Content providers know their specific audiences and how these audiences work much better than Google or Yahoo! can, and they remain in the best position to gather that information.
Ultimately, the most formidable competition for search could be actual tech-empowered users. On-demand media formats, communities of media sharers, personalized delivery mechanisms (TiVo, podcasting), and especially RSS feeds reestablish direct relationships between content makers and audiences. As technological awareness grows, Googling anything becomes less necessary. "At some point, search-determined traffic loses its dominance as more people who repeatedly want to know the same things set up their own connections," SearchEngineWatch.com's Sullivan says. Distant as it may be, the day of ultimate irony may befall search. The great new force inserting itself between traditional content and audiences will itself get cut back out of the loop. But then we would have to invent another excruciating marketing term - dis-disintermediation.