Return To The Sad Days Of More Than A Search Engine?

It was analyst day at Yahoo yesterday, a time when the company trots out figures, executives and other material to talk about how it is doing as a company.

George Mannes at has a nice write-up of things that came out of analyst day. I was most struck by a quote from Yahoo chief marketing officer Cammie Dunaway. Yahoo, she said, is “much more than a search engine.”

Wow. How the circle turns. After all the recent attention on search — and the improvement in search quality that has come with it — can it be that the major search players are about to make the same portal mistakes of the late 1990s?

Those portal mistakes, a desire to be more than a search engine, allowed “pure search” Google to blossom. The difference is that this time, Google itself may be making the same mistakes.

The Good Old Portal Times

Dunaway’s quote is so striking because it flashes back to around 1998, when all the major portals were almost embarrassed to be called search engines. You constantly heard from them that they were more than a search engine or that search was just one of many things they did.

As I explained in my The End For Search Engines? article from 2001, this attitude was somewhat understandable. Search was a loss-leader. It was portal features and advertising that kept these companies alive. As Infoseek founder Steve Kirsch recalled recently, being a portal was “the thing to do at the time.”

Nevertheless, this inattention on search also caused the search engines — ahem, portals — to take their eye off the search ball. Into that space came Google. Its founders have previously said how they had no real interest in joining up with any of the established portals, as it was clear those companies weren’t focused on search.

The result is well-known. Google quickly grew in popularity, to the point where it has been seen by some as synonymous with search. In the meantime, paid listings pioneered by Overture, then used also by Google, meant search could earn big money. Suddenly, we were plunged into a new search engine war where Yahoo and Microsoft — two major winners of the portal wars — wanted to take on Google.

Portal Wars Anew?

Google has been fighting back, but this has been most dramatic on the portal front. Yesterday, it rolled out a new Google Groups mailing list service to rival Yahoo’s long established one. In my article about the service, Google says this are good search reasons for this. I disagree.

Google Gmail, of course, gives Google a giant portal feature. I see much more of a match between Gmail and Google’s search mission. Nevertheless, there’s been some search negatives from Google’s move into this portal territory.

Since the announcement, Google has become embroiled over email privacy issues, which has to sap time and energy away from other things such as search. Meanwhile, Yahoo said at its analyst day that it plans to increase the storage it offers users of its own free email service. That’s going to pull time and money away from search also. As more portal feature battles erupt, search may suffer more.

Google, of course, is more than a search engine itself. Aside from portal features, it’s a major media company, as I’ve written before. Anyone who has failed to get this picture can’t miss it now, as Google announced yesterday that it will distribute graphical ads on web sites.

Putting pictures on web sites has to do with search how? It has nothing to do with it! But then, neither did putting textual ads on web sites.

I’ll look at this more in a future piece I’m working on, working title of “Why Contextual Ads Aren’t Search — And Why You Should Care.” Suffice to say until then, both search and contextual may be great for advertisers, but they are different and should be treated as such. Meanwhile, mixing contextual and search ad revenues together in one big “paid search” pile as many analysts and others are doing will lead to misleading conclusions about the state of the search industry.

Becoming a media player did make great sense for Google. It was a natural move to leverage the large advertising base it has. But its role in placing ads on sites across the web has nothing — absolutely nothing — to do with organizing information, as I wrote back when Google launched AdSense.

Juggling More May Mean Less

“More than a search engine.” It’s almost unbelievable to hear those words spoken, especially from Yahoo, which over the past year has been desperately trying to resurrect its image as a search engine. While I’ve yet to hear Google utter those exact words, its actions speak them loudly.

I’ve generally seen it unlikely that we’ll get a “new” Google in the near future, because it hasn’t seemed like the major players (Google included) would make portal mistakes again and neglect search. But the events of the past few weeks make me wonder anew.

Maybe the established companies will be able to juggle all the balls in the air — portal features, search, media sales — without dropping any of them. If not, perhaps the circle is about to turn again and a new Google really will emerge.

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