Searching Outside the Box: Engines Search Out New Business Opportunities

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Is it just me, or do the massively popular search engines, responsible for over 80% of the web's daily queries, seem a bit distracted lately?

Surely, the search paradigm has won the day as the de facto, undisputed interface for digitized content. Google and Yahoo! alone account for one-third or more of traffic coming to many of the top branded content sites online. And yet, now at the top of their game, the major engines are looking outside the search box for future business strategies, from web services-based software applications to mobile executions, and even into content creation, aggregation, and distribution. 

In a radical example of exactly how far off-road the major engines are driving from that original, simple search box, ABI Research recently argued that the "next big battleground" for search-driven portals will be the car dashboard and who will send local mapping and services information to our Ford Explorers. Which begs the question, where exactly are the big digital engines headed, and what does the broadening notion of search mean for the content to which they link? What is search searching for, anyway? 

The Never-Ending GooHoo War
"I think Google is bored with search, and Yahoo! is just as [bored]," says Chuck Richard, lead analyst at Outsell. After boldly declaring its reentry into the search game several years ago, Yahoo! has seen its share of worldwide online queries steadily decline from 24% in January 2005 to 20.6% in May 2006 (comScore). According to traffic measurement service Alexa, only 8% of Yahoo! users are going to its main search location, while 51% course through Yahoo! Mail.

Remarkably enough, the company seems relatively unconcerned about its shrinking share of search, and even investment analysts like PiperJaffray see the portal's future lying with new investments in user-generated content and better ad targeting technologies. Yahoo! seems focused more on collaborative user-tagging of content through its recent community acquisitions, photo repository site Flickr and the Del.icio.us bookmark sharing community. Its new Answers product is a wiki-like experiment in users responding directly to other users' information queries. Rather than go head-to-head with Google over pure search results, Yahoo! may rely on millions of users to make and index the content and thus redefine search itself. "Tagging returns Yahoo! to its strengths" and its original mission as a directory of the web, says David Berkowitz, longtime search expert and director of strategic planning for marketing firm 360i. "It becomes a hybrid search and directory model. This is one of their big bets that [tagging] will reshape the search experience."

Meanwhile over at the Big G ranch, it is anyone's guess where the undisputed leader in search is headed and whose business it wants to eat. Recent forays into online word processors and spreadsheets seem to take on Microsoft. Bids for deploying free WiFi networks in the San Francisco area suggest Google wants to be an ISP. The Google Base of user-submitted listings resembles a newspaper classifieds section or a budding eBay, and the new CheckOut online payment system takes direct aim at ecommerce juggernaut PayPal. Google prides itself in its try-everything, let's-see-what-sticks approach to business, and it has over $9 billion in cash to throw at a lot of walls.

Yet, despite the hype, many Google projects, such as Base, the new Finance pages, its social networking site Orkut, and even its Talk instant messaging client, have barely nibbled, certainly not gobbled, anyone else's business. Internally, some elements in the company wonder whether it should manage wars on so many fronts. The Los Angeles Times reports that an in-house review found Google was not investing enough resources into its core competency, the search engine.

So is search really interested in search anymore? Yes and no, say many experts, because we may be watching search itself being redefined. Search may become less a single query plugged into a box and more a way of organizing information in personalized ways, indexes that are informed by social networks and sharpened into vertical silos of results that are more relevant to users. For that, the engines need people's input, and that impulse is what informs many of these recent side trips from the search box. They need not only to gather users but also to get those users to make and interact with content. 

"Some of what we are going through is a land grab for Web 2.0," says Danny Sullivan, founder and editor-in-chief of SearchEngineWatch.com. Yahoo! is and remains a media company partnering with and aggregating the best content it can find and selling advertising against it. Google continues to describe itself as a tech company that is trying to organize the planet's information. "Core to maintaining long-term business strategies is grabbing a new audience as quickly as they can and locking them in through applications," Sullivan says.

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