There is space for innovation in search, but challenging Google will be tough

By August 4, 2008 4 Comments

In response to the launch of Cuil last week I wrote that a post entitled What a new search engine should be about in which I suggested some areas in which a search startup could make some headway against Google (natural language queries, mobile and social search were the areas I mentioned).

I stand by that analysis, but feel moved by some of the comments and an article I read this morning to also say that it won’t be easy and I wouldn’t advocate a full frontal assault.

That it won’t be easy is pretty self evident to anyone with a basic knowledge of the search market, particularly here in the UK where Google is exceptionally dominant, but this excerpt from ars technica gives a useful reminder of how tough it is to break into the search market:

According to comScore’s latest figures, Google commanded 61.5 percent of the US search market, while Yahoo owned 20.9 percent and Microsoft trailed with 9.2 percent. Both and AOL follow far behind the big three. And where are the hot startups? Smaller search engines  like Mahalo, Powerset, and Quintura didn’t even make the list.

Markets which are that consolidated are really hard to break into, and success is only likely to be possible for companies that have something an order of magnitude better than the incumbents.

A full frontal assault on this market is problematic because Google et al already do a pretty good job of core search it is unlikely unlikely that a startup is going to be an order of magnitude better than them across the whole search experience. It therefore makes sense to take a piece of search that is important to a subset of users, win in that area and then expand and grow from there.

Azeem put it this way in his comment to my post last week:

it is tough to pretend to be a Google-killer because there is such depth to their offering and it is dumb to attempt to attack them on exactly the same or similar enough value axes that they excel at. Sometimes sidestepping the competition is also a sensible move

Finally, to successfully challenge Google you don’t necessarily have to be a ‘Google-killer’. Given their astronomic valuation and Microsofts continued massive investment into search the reality is that if a startup is even part way successful in building success in this space then it is likely to receive an acquisition offer it will find hard to turn down. That would constitute success in most people eyes and is achieved without ‘beating’ Google. Ironically it may even make them stronger. That said, if you are going to command a really big valuation you need to have the potential to take and hold a good sized piece of the market.

, so talk of ‘Google killers’ may be wide of the mark, but that still allows the possibility of a very exciting result for founders and investors.