Within just a few short months last fall, a search engine world dominated by Google and Yahoo! (and soon MSN as well) got a lot more interesting as several experiments in new styles of search launched: Clusty.com, Blinkx, Snap, A9.com, Info.com, and a much-revived and revamped Ask Jeeves. Add to this list of Google wannabes Google's own desktop search tool, Yahoo!'s new personalized search service, and some of the tricks that seem to be up MSN Search's sleeve. Content providers had better keep their eyes on this rapidly evolving sector. Search is becoming a lynchpin both of the Web economy and the way users navigate to your content.
Insiders at Google tell me that they are seeing important shifts in user behavior; many users now put URLs into the Google toolbar search box in order to get to a target site, which suggests that surfers are starting to use search engines as reliable modes of navigation, not just as data harvesting tools. This means that search engines are starting to see themselves as portals, as entryways to the Web, and so we see them partnering more feverishly with content. Google recently bought mapping service Keyhole and allied with BellSouth's RealPages.com to sell local AdWords advertising.
Content partnerships with search engines are also the likely result of more personalized search scheme like the new MyJeeves at Ask.com or Amazon's A9.com. In these models, the engine retains your search history, even bookmarks, for easy recall. This record of a users' preferences and past behavior become extremely valuable to advertisers, especially if the search engine can follow the user with targeted ads as they move off of the results page and into the content destinations. This is exactly what some search company executives are already discussing as a future scenario, establishing networks of partnered content into which the search engine's team can sell ads.
The emerging world of search also introduces wrinkles into an already tricky process of getting your content picked up and noticed by the major engines. Many of these tools now let users tweak and twiddle with the very algorithms by which results are ranked. Snap.com gives you the option to rank listings according to their popularity with other users and even according to the length of time previous users spent on each destination site after clicking through. Clusty.com, organizes search results into a series of topical folders, so that relevant listings that might have been pages deep in the results have a better chance of coming to the surface. According to some leaked screenshots of experiments at MSN Search, that upcoming engine may have sliders for fine tuning the rank order according to popularity, timeliness and search term matching.
One search engine marketer bluntly told me that some new tools for personalized search could wreak havoc in his field because "we won't have one target to aim at anymore." All of the old methods of optimizing a site for better search engine exposure become useless if people are rolling their own algorithms and getting results ranked according to too many variables for any content provider to anticipate. The upshot? Vendors and content providers will need to move from low cost search optimizing to higher cost keyword ad buying to ensure search engine exposure.
Will any of these alternative search engines really succeed in overtaking the mighty triumvirate of search? Probably not, but then they don't have to. As all of us become more dependent on search as a navigational tool, personalization, manipulating algorithms on the fly, planting search boxes on the desktop or in applications are all features that Yahoo!, Google, and MSN Search no doubt will absorb over the next few years. The implications and opportunities for content providers could be subtle but profound: in the ways we advertise on engines and plant their advertising on our sites; in the way we optimize content to ensure its placement in results; but ultimately in the way we seek partnerships with search engines as they start re-positioning themselves as portals rather than mere tools.