We've long had competition in search, stretching back to when search engines as we know them started to emerge in 1994 and 1995. Even in those early days, search engines like Yahoo, Infoseek and Lycos were popular creatures with consumers. While some old players have passed and new players like Google emerged, the search sector itself has retained its popularity -- and the competition to gain users that goes with that.
If competition has always been there, then why are we hearing so much about the "search wars" now? Because in the past, popular search engines engaged in portal wars, rather than focusing on the search battlefront. The few survivors of those portal wars woke up to discover that search was hot, a money maker and increasingly dominated by a then upstart called Google.
Today, we're witnessing a clash of the search titans or search superpowers. Call them what you like -- Google, Yahoo and Microsoft -- are major players squaring off to control web search technology and hopefully, secure their own destinies.
With the expected imminent release of financial information from Google, either in preparation for that company going public or just to comply with US financial regulations, you can expect to see a renewed focus on the search wars. Google is a giant missing piece for those who want to calculate the value of search.
Overture's public filings kicked off Wall Street's interest in search, as my Search Engine Marketing Finally Getting Respect article from 2001 explains. Google's public filings will likely add fuel to the fire. Renewed speculation about who will "win" the search wars will also follow.
With this background in mind, here's a look at how the current search wars got started.
Yahoo Declares War
December 23, 2002 is a day that perhaps might go down in infamy for Google. That's when Yahoo announced it would buy Inktomi, a company that had crawler-based search technology.
"You are the enemy," Yahoo effectively said to Google, with this purchase that completed in March 2003.
Why was this a declaration of war? Yahoo had long taken crawler-based results from Google, unpaid listings or "algorithmic results" as the financial community is fond of calling them. These serve as the search engine equivalent to a newspaper's articles or a television network's programs. These main results are the editorial content that attracts searchers, who may then in turn also view ads.
The Inktomi purchase meant Yahoo would produce such programming itself, rather than rely on Google. Yahoo said it made this move in order to control its own destiny. It wanted to create new technology that it hoped would keep existing users and perhaps attract new ones away from other services such as Google.
Google had a good idea that war with Yahoo was coming. In April 2002, Yahoo signed a multiyear deal to take paid listings from Overture. It was a major partnership Google had hoped to win, because it potentially represented far more revenue to Google than a deal just to provide editorial results.
The Search Phony War
While Yahoo had declared war on Google, it was a phony war lasted for over a year. Yahoo continued to use Google's unpaid results, rather than shifting over to Inktomi.
The official line was that Yahoo was getting Inktomi ready for use on its own site. This was a weak argument to me. Inktomi already was a strong search engine when Yahoo purchased it. Instead, it seemed as if some contractual obligations forced Yahoo to continue with Google throughout 2003.
Of course, Yahoo's rollout of its own technology was also complicated by a wave of acquisitions. In October 2003, Yahoo bought Overture. Earlier that year, Overture itself had purchased the crawler technology used by AltaVista and AllTheWeb, which it had hoped would allow it to take on Google.
As a result, Yahoo had considerable crawler-based armament in the form of Inktomi, AltaVista and AllTheWeb. By February 2004, it had assembled this armament into a new search engine it called Yahoo Search Technology. Let's just call it Yahoo Search for short. That month, Yahoo deployed Yahoo Search on its own site, dumping Google and engaging in the first real battle of the search wars.
Finally, Yahoo had severed ties with Google. And finally, those who wanted an alternative to Google from Yahoo had what they were looking for. A new, strong search voice had emerged onto the scene (though the former voices of Inktomi, AllTheWeb and AltaVista had been silenced).
FYI, early statistics suggest that Yahoo's use of its own technology hasn't caused it to lose users. This implies that the technology is at least as good as Google. Otherwise, Yahoo usage might have dropped.
Microsoft Builds Up
Microsoft declared search war in April 2003, saying it planned to develop its own search technology. More recently, Microsoft execs such as Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer have said Microsoft's failure to develop its own search technology was one of the biggest mistakes the company has made.
While Microsoft has declared war, it isn't in the battle yet. The company is still building up its own military. In the meantime, it's dependent on lend-lease shipments of paid and unpaid listings from current ally and future enemy, Yahoo. MSN's new search engine isn't expected until the end of this year, at the earliest.
Some observers see Microsoft's coming battle as only involving Google and thus assume there will be a repeat of that other classic battle, Microsoft versus Netscape.
In reality, the battle will be against both Yahoo and Google, which both have a sizable share of the search market and their own technology. To some degree, Microsoft also is taking on AOL, another giant in the search space, though it doesn't operate its own technology. Finally, unlike with Netscape, Microsoft isn't getting a headstart by licensing technology to build on.
In addition to fighting against more competitors, Microsoft also isn't fighting a pure technological battle. Search does have roots in technology, but overall, it's a media product. Currently, it's difficult to lock users into a particular search product, as with a browser, because search does not require a particular software application.
What about desktop integration? What about it? As I've written before, that already exists within Windows and hasn't stopped the use of Google, Yahoo and others so far. It does offer a potential advantage, but not necessarily a killer one. And when the new version of Windows rolls out over a year from now, perhaps things like Google's new Gmail system will have redefined how we use our computers, assuming that service gains acceptability.
The Winner? Think TV Networks & Cable
I'm constantly being asked who will win the current search wars, and many others are speculating as well. None of us know, of course. There are far too many factors that can't be predicted.
Nevertheless, the limb I've been walking out on has been to liken search engines to television. Write-ups of my recent keynote at Search Engine Strategies in New York last month explain this in more depth, and I might expand that keynote into its own article. In the meantime, here's the overview.
In television, at least in the US, you have a few major broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox) that consistently have a large number of viewers. But none of them ever "kills" the other networks. They may simply get a larger share than others depending on the quality of its programming.
So too in search, I don't think Microsoft will wipe out Google, Google will wipe out Yahoo or that AOL will suddenly disappear. Instead, it's more likely you'll see wins and losses between them, but that all will remain giant players in the near-to-medium future.
Does that mean little players such as Gigablast, Feedster or Daypop won't survive? Not at all. Now think cable TV. These services and other specialty search engines will attract their own unique audiences.
Some may be integrated into major search engines, as invisible tab use grows, through partnerships or licensing agreements. Others will continue on their own. Perhaps they'll only make millions, rather earning the billions that major players can do. But as long as they are profitable and providing a good service, everyone gains.
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