Bringing Down Google

The biggest battle of 2004 will not be fought on the gridiron in Houston or in the voting booths of Iowa. The West Coast struggle for search-engine dominance should have all the drama and tragedy of legend. With deep pockets and sharp minds, the Internet’s top destinations are in a three-way fight for market dominance, with billions of dollars of ad revenue as the golden chalice.

In the world of search marketing, the power players are no longer the technologies that fuel search but the portals that aggregate the searchers to begin with. This is an important distinction when looking at MSN and Yahoo! While Google is the leader, handling about 44 percent of all English-language searches, it will be tough for the folks in Mountain View to keep the top spot. Even if their war chest grows through a successful IPO this year, the fact that Google is a “search-only” destination could impede its growth.

Google has grown by leaps and bounds for the sole reason that it built a better mousetrap. Yet with the proliferation of AdWords, Google’s paid-advertising program, and its recent algorithm update, which has been universally derided, it begs the question: How long will surfers flock to Google? Is the search experience that much better? For now, the answer is a tentative yes.

Now, what if portal destinations Yahoo! and MSN build mousetraps that are at least as good or better? Both are trying desperately to do so. Yahoo! invested heavily last year by acquiring Inktomi and Overture. It enjoys a healthy 24 percent share of English-language searches. When it replaces its search results with Inktomi later this quarter, it will realize two strategic initiatives: It will deliver a mighty blow to Google’s reach, and it will provide a combination of search technologies that should make for a comprehensive and satisfying search experience.

With so many potential searchers already using its site for e-mail, shopping, weather, stock quotes, etc., Yahoo! needs only to market itself as a search destination to enjoy a healthy increase in search share.

Perhaps the best-kept secret in search is MSN. Just what are they doing in Redmond anyway? By passing on LookSmart, MSN seems to be leaning toward the build (versus buy) scenario. It is now funneling valuable search revenue to Yahoo! by featuring both Overture and Inktomi in its search results. This will soon change. We have seen MSN roll out the Featured Site search product, which positions advertisers above the formerly lucrative Overture listings. These are selling briskly and have already sold out in hypercompetitive markets.

Like Yahoo!, MSN has a huge advantage over Google in that it doesn’t have to go far for its audience. Millions start their day at simply because they have never bothered to change their settings in Internet Explorer. Build a good search product, advertise it, and MSN should see share of search increase, too.

Enter the X factor: AOL. Today, AOL is a pure Google distributor, providing Google with another 10 percent of reach with AOL’s search share. With AOL spending on other initiatives such as broadband penetration, it is unlikely to invest in search technology. So here is the battleground where the big three will fight to gain distribution. Even better, AOL users are converters. This is good traffic to have for search-engine marketers. MSN and Yahoo! would be smart to woo AOL away from Google and firmly establish themselves as serious search providers.

Before we toll the bell for Google, however, we need only remind ourselves that Google has become synonymous with search. It will truly take an excellent search product, coupled with massive marketing, to convince the public that Yahoo! and MSN provide an adequate search experience. But if anyone can do it, they can.

For the Record: A story on agency closings in 2003 [Jan. 5] should have noted that the Bozell name will remain on the agency’s founding office, Bozell & Jacobs in Omaha, Neb.