2011 – the year when Google and Apple find themselves with real competition?

By | Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Mobile, Search | No Comments

More competition for the major web platforms would be a significant boon for startups.  Google’s huge margins make it more expensive and hence difficult for startups to acquire customers and grow and Apple’s restrictive policies for iPhone apps have a similar effect on companies in the mobile arena.  For this reason I’m a keen supporter of Android and of Microsoft’s efforts to make Bing a viable competitor in search.

Given this position you can imagine I was pleased to read the following articles on Techcrunch this morning:

The first headline is self-explanatory – when counting searches on and Bing powered they had a near 30% market share in November, and they are growing fast.  In my book that makes them a true competitor to Google in the US.  Clearly they occupy second place, but at that level of difference in market share they must be getting towards a place where economics and margins shouldn’t be too out of kilter with Google’s.  Microsoft will need to replicate that market share globally though, and my sense is they are further behind outside the US.

The second article I linked to above reports on how the 1m downloads of the Flixster app over the last week were shared between the different mobile platforms (Flixster is a service for movie enthusiasts).  Apple was way out in front with 50% on the iPhone and a further 10% on the iPad, and Android was a clear second with 30%, RIM managed 8% and Windows Phone was sub 1%.  If you follow the mobile space you will be aware of the massive growth that Android enjoyed in 2010 and overtook the iPhone in terms of new connections.  However, Android is available on a lot of lower end handsets, and many carriers have customised Android installs on devices they subsidise to push their own properties both of which combine to make headline OS market share data a bit misleading.  From a third party developer perspective the important question is how the platforms compare in terms of application and web use, and this Flixster data shows us that by this metric Apple still has a considerable lead, but Android is already a very credible second. And, once again, it is growing fast.

More competition will inevitably lead to more innovation and falling prices, which will be good for all of us.

Finally – as an aside it is interesting to note that you need deep pockets to challenge an incumbent platform with a near monopoly position, and that the companies with the resources and appetite to have a go are the monopolists from the previous wave of tech.  Microsoft is using the cash from its OS and office apps monopoly to challenge Google in search and in turn Google is using the cash from its search monopoly to challenge Apple in mobile (and also Microsoft in office apps).

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Google Instant makes it harder for the small guy to do SEO

By | Google, Search | 12 Comments

There is a good post on Techcrunch today about the impact of Google Instant on SEO.  SEO company RankAbove has done some research and from the two weeks of data available it seems that one of the big changes is reduced traffic to long-tail keywords, here’s why:

Because Google Instant focuses the user’s attention on more popular search phrases, by suggesting them and showing their results as the user types, fewer users will use longer tail, less popular phrases. Searchers typing a longer, more obscure variation of a keyword are unlikely to complete it before they see the results—automatically loaded onto the SERP [search engine results page] —they were looking for.

A company selling iPod Car Adapters, but ranking for a lesser-used phrase, like “iPod Car Cables,” is unlikely to get much traffic from that phrase, as a searcher using Instant would almost never get to that search before seeing relevant results. For a site counting on unpopular, “forgotten” long-tail phrases like that, their traffic will dwindle.

I think startups are likely to be disproportionately hit by this development, losing out at the margin to companies that have the scale and resources to optimise for the most popular queries.

The other change of note is that less people are clicking through to the second page of results, which will similarly lend advantage to companies that have the muscle to get onto the first page.

Caveat: This analysis is based on just two weeks of data and the results might change as volumes increase and people get through their periods of learning to use Google Instant and settle down to a consistent pattern of behaviour.  The other thing is that Google Instant doesn’t work if you search directly from the nav bar or toolbar, so any changes wrought will only apply to a percentage of users.

Update: In the comments Benoit Cundy pointed me to this chart which shows that very little traffic went to the second page of results anyway.


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Facebook making forays into search

By | Facebook, Google, Search | 4 Comments

Over on All Facebook they have been writing a lot this week about Facebook’s moves into search.  Their thesis is that the ‘like’ is replacing the ‘link’ as a measure of authority and that Facebook has all the data to deliver the best search service.  A couple of days ago they wrote about how SEO might work on Facebook and then today they trumped that with Facebook unleashes open graph search engine, declares war on Google.

Together these two posts explain how Facebook will begin surfacing objects from their Open Graph index in Facebook search results and these objects could be pages from your site, or any other.  Take a look at the screen shot below to see how this might work.

imageAccording to All Facebook, Facebook will use the number of times a page is liked to determine relevancy and hence positioning in the search results.  As they point out this will lead to ‘like baiting’ which is equivalent to the ‘link baiting’ publishers practice to get good positioning on Google.

Right now much of this is speculation.  All Facebook say they managed to replicate the result shown in this screenshot (which I assume was issued by Facebook) but when I tried it the Trip Advisor result didn’t show up.  I also tried a bunch of other searches and didn’t get anything very interesting back.

That said, for certain types of searches Facebook could be very powerful.  The Ajax on Facebook’s search is greasy quick and if you are on Facebook already and want to quickly know something more about a hotel using their search function could easily become a quicker then going over to Google.  It will only work for a subset of queries though, and the size of that subset will depend on how good their algorithm is.

The other interesting thing here is whether and how Facebook will directly monetise their search feature.  If they do they will have to choose between promoting partners’ sites and adopting a more transparent system like Adwords.  This decision parallels the one being taken at Apple right now about ads running within their platform.  A couple of weeks ago I posted about how the web landscape is changing and we are heading towards a world where success for startups is getting much more dependent on having the right partnerships rather than having great product and web promotion skills – I don’t necessarily think that this is a good development, and the way Facebook and Apple approach the next period in their development will determine how quickly we move in that direction.

You might by now be wondering whether Facebook search is yet making a dent in Google from a market share perspective.  The answer is yes, but only a small one – according to Comscore data from April (reported here on GigaOM) their share is around 2.7%.  That said, my understanding is that their query volume is growing very fast.

We could all use some competition for Google, maybe this will be it.

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Google fail, content farms and point in time business models

By | Content, Google, Search | 13 Comments

image Back in December John Battelle posted that Google is failing more and Paul Kedrosky wrote about Dishwashers, and how Google eats its own tail – both posts about how Google doesn’t return the results we want any more.

There are a couple of steps to this argument.  I’ll take content farms first.  The highly successful Demand Media is the poster child of this industry which automatically creates content that lists well on Google and then makes Adword bucks from the traffic that comes there way (which they share with Google).  The problem is that although the content is good enough and changes often enough to get listed by Google, it isn’t actually very good.  Kedrosky describes it like this:

keyword-driven content — material created to be consumed like info-krill by Google’s algorithms. Find some popular keywords that lead to traffic and transactions, wrap some anodyne and regularly-changing content around the keywords so Google doesn’t kick you out of search results, and watch the dollars roll in as Google steers you life-support systems connected to wallets, i.e, idiot humans.

Google has become a snake that too readily consumes its own keyword tail. Identify some words that show up in profitable searches — from appliances, to mesothelioma suits, to kayak lessons — churn out content cheaply and regularly, and you’re done. On the web, no-one knows you’re a content-grinder.

The result, however, is awful. Pages and pages of Google results that are just, for practical purposes, advertisements in the loose guise of articles, original or re-purposed

Battelle also notes the poor quality of the content in content farms, but thinks the bigger picture is that we are asking increasingly complicated questions of search engines and therefore asking them to do a job they were not set up for – the second step to the argument.  That rings true for me, but I would be interested to see some data.  Certainly the average number of words per query is rising and one would suspect that more words indicates a more complex query.

This brings me to my final point, which is that if the consumer experience is getting worse, because of content farms, changing requirements, or some other reason, then someone will come up with a way of fixing the problem.  She might be at Google, or it might be Mark Zuckerberg, or it could be someone we haven’t heard of yet, but if there is demand, someone will fill it.  Battelle puts it like this:

Audiences always route around that which they don’t want, and when something better comes along as a navigational interface, we’ll pick it up, and quick. If Google doesn’t figure this out, someone else will, and the cycle will repeat.

I can’t see content farms being something that audiences consciously route to, making them a point in time solution which works in the current Google context.  There is nothing inherently wrong with point of time business models, as the ‘point’ in time can be rather drawn out and the businesses behind them can always add new product lines to stay fresh and keep growing, but they are always going to be weaker than businesses with no obvious end in sight.  With hindsight AOL was a point in time company that has struggled for the best part of a decade to find something new to make it exciting again.

Interestingly Battelle thinks that we will see a new UI paradigm which will help us get what we want more quickly solving search and content farm related issues.  He has this as #4 in his predictions for 2010.

Happy New Year to you all 🙂

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‘Less than free’ as a business – is it time to be afraid of Google?

By | Google, iPhone, Microsoft, Mobile, Search | 8 Comments

I’m back from holiday today (Majorca, very nice, thank you…) and have been enjoying catching up on reading and looking forward to getting back into the routine of posting every workday.  Perusing my usual sources for inspiration (amongst which Viewsflow is becoming increasingly important) I hit on this wonderful post from Bill Gurley about Google and the ‘Less Than Free’ business model.

Bill’s first point is that this is VERY BAD NEWS for TomTom/Tele Atlas and Nokia/Navteq as Android now includes turn by turn navigation for free based on Google’s data (after they dropped Tele Atlas in October).

His second point, and this is where ‘less than free’ comes in, is that Google will effectively be paying mobile OEMs to use its Android OS by offering them a share of the search ad revenues that come with it.  This presents a tough choice for Apple and RIM who must choose to either not match the competitive offering of free turn by turn navigation or pay royalties to Tele Atlas or Navteq on every device sold, threatening already tight margins.

It is worse news for mobile OS vendors Microsoft and Symbian who will face the same choice but will have few other dimensions on which to compete with Android and lower revenues per handset to soak up the cost of a license to Tele Atlas/Navteq.

Bill’s final point is that Google can make the same ‘less than free’ offer to PC OEMs who might choose to use Chrome instead of Windows or another open source alternative.

All this adds up to a very powerful set of moves from Google and have the potential to significantly increase their stranglehold on the search market – which will be bad news for most of us.  I have been impressed by Microsoft’s latest efforts with Bing, but it is hard to even dream about a search feature set which would compete with the structural competitive advantages that Google is building.

Afterword: naysayers on ‘free’ in general take note.

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Bing, competition, and search

By | Google, Microsoft, Search | 6 Comments

We’ve all heard the old adage that the search problem is only 5% solved.  My news today is that I got a much better idea of what the next few percent will look like, largely from a Microsoft sponsored session this morning here at the Web2.0 Summit talking where they are taking Bing.  It was a pretty impressive session and I was left thinking that they had done a good job of thinking where search works at the moment, where it doesn’t, and what the small concrete things they can do about that.

Some examples (and I could have given many more):

  • The ‘hover feature’ which allows you to preview more of the content on a page before clicking on the link, so you will have less of the frustrating hitting the back button to return you to the results page when you click on a link that you hoped would give you what you want, but turns out not to
  • Including facts in search results – going beyond far beyond weather to include many more facts e.g. traffic and flight status if you type in a flight number
  • Bringing the features that you would use from sites direct into the search results – e.g. a search for UPS brings you a UPS track parcel search box right into the results
  • Visual search for shopping so you can flick through literally thousands of e.g. HDTV’s, and they have some nice tools to refine the search based on parameters – e.g. 37-42 inch TVs
  • Bringing aggregated review results direct into search results, and they have done some nice work helping the user to quickly derive meaning from the reviews

Stepping up a level, these initiatives are changing what search is about, which is a response to changes in consumer intent when they are searching.  When we first started searching we were generally looking for a link to a site that we knew – so the intent was navigational.  That remains the case for a large number of queries, but for an increasing proportion the intent is simply to find information.  For this set of customers the search paradigm changes from being one of ‘get me off the search engine and to where I want to get to as fast as you can’ to ‘get me to the information as fast as you can’.

In other words search engines are becoming destination sites in their own right, in part at least.

Four of the five Bing features I list above can be understood in this light (check out the screenshots below).

Notice I have not said that all of this will be enough for Microsoft to take a chunk out of Google, but I do think it gives them a shot, and at the very least we will get some good parallel innovation from Google.  Taking a more optimistic view you can see a scenario where the search market gets more competitive and margins start to come down which, amongst other things, would reduce the cost of clicks and hence customer acquisition for many startups.  Remember also that we are talking about a paradigm shift in search which is one of the reasons I think MSFT has a chance.

In related news we have just heard that Microsoft and Twitter have done a deal which will see the full firehose turning up in Bing search results.  It is unclear how that will look over time, but realtime is another area where search becomes more destination site than hop off point.

Update: I’m listening to Marissa Meyer announcing that Google is now also receiving the full Twitter firehose and talking about some neat social additions to their search results page





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Google and Facebook show their scale advantage by copying Twitter

By | Facebook, Google, Search, Twitter | 4 Comments

I read this morning on search engine land that Google is going a bit more real-time by putting trending search topics information direct onto the first page of search results.  This works by adding a ‘Hot Trends Onebox’ near the bottom of the results page, see the picture below.


For me this is a nice feature.  It will be cool to know when lots of other people are searching on the same topic as me, and also whether the topic has already peaked in popularity.

My point here though is that Google’s move shows the advantage their scale gives them versus startups like Twitter.  To explain; Twitter has done an awesome job building the realtime meme, and realtime search is an important part of that, and now Google is in a good position to take some of the benefits of all that hard work for themselves.  Hot Trends doesn’t compete directly with Twitter – it isn’t a microblogging service – but it does compete with Twitter Search, which is regarded as one of the potential money spinners for Twitter, and as such could hurt the world’s favourite micro-blogging platform as it tries to grow into its $1bn valuation.

To go into a little detail; Hot Trends looks at search query data, which Google is now describing as an alternative form of microblogging, with a MUCH higher volume of data. Google’s scale advantage comes from being able to quickly see what resonates with its huge user base and potentially innovate much faster than Twitter going forward (in this area).

A couple of caveats; 1) Twitter Search looks at the Twitter stream so the services are not directly comparable.  2) Google doesn’t have access to the full Twiiter firehose and so can’t compete directly with Twitter search.  The two companies are apparently in discussions though and the obvious value to Google of being able to index the full Twitter stream might be a clue as to why Twitter seems so relaxed about monetisation and why they attracted such a high valuation.

Facebook has been similarly copying Twitter although this time in direct competition with the core microblogging service.  They are also able to leverage their huge user base to quickly see what works and what doesn’t which gives them a structural advantage over Twitter going forward.

My point here is not that Facebook and Google will win, and Twitter won’t.  That battle remains open, and making the scale advantages count is not necessarily straight forward, plus all the services are a little different and there is probably space for all three (and I should also say that Twitter itself is pretty big now, in terms of users). 

The purpose of this post is rather to show how in the internet space everything plays out in public and larger companies can copy the best features from smaller competitors and then leverage the information that comes from their large user bases to innovate going faster going forward.  As a result the winner takes all dynamic is stronger on the web than in more traditional sectors of IT.

For a great breakdown of the realtime search world, looking at definitions and players check out this post from Danny Sullivan of search engine land.

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Great to see some competition/innovation in search

By | Google, Microsoft, Search | One Comment

There is a good piece in the New York Times today which lists a lot of ways in which Bing is better than Google.  Here are some:

  • Speed – of initial results and in the way it helps to find the right result, minimising clicks and dead ends
  • Preview of search results without clicking off the results page (see Picture 1. below)
  • Related searches links on the left for certain categories of search – e.g. celebs (Picture 2)
  • Better presentation of image search results
  • Ability to flick through videos in the search results page (shows one frame for ever 7s of video)
  • Better product search – more pictures and the related search links again (see Picture 3 for side by side presentation of Bing and Google results courtesy of comparison site Bing vs Google)

There are of course lots and lots of ways in which Google remains better than Bing, and as the NY Times piece points out Bing is not even consistently delivering the features above, so my point here is not that Bing will beat Google, but rather that we can expect Google to respond by improving more rapidly than it has been up to now.  I’m sure also that Bing will keep on improving and hopefully we will get a feature race that will make life better for us all.  If it pans out this way we will be watching capitalism at its finest in action.

Despite all this (and maybe even because of it) publicly Google’s attention is focused elsewhere.  Yesterday their head of search Merissa Mayer was focusing on realtime search as the area of interest (a little unconvincingly if you read this write up in the Guardian), and of course there was the Chrome OS browser announcement. 

As a sidebar it is interesting to note that in the popular perception there is rough parity between Google’s chances of success in the OS market and Microsoft’s chances in the search market, although I know which side of this new vs. old and free vs paid fight I would rather be on.

Picture 1


Picture 2


Picture 3


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More good news for Bing

By | Microsoft, Search | One Comment

Fresh news out today from search marketing technology company Efficient Frontier shows the Microsoft search engine is making good progress with it’s share of paid clicks.  If this trend continues the advertising budgets will follow.


This comes on top of good news about their share of searches, so I’m guessing folks at Redmond are pleased.  It is still very early days though, as the folks at Efficient Frontier point out, two weeks data doesn’t constitute a trend.


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