Google’s Path to Domination

I never throw anything away. Strike that. Everything I save has some kind of meaning, I just forget what that meaning is, and someone eventually makes me throw it away. Comic books, newspaper clippings, trinkets, and trash from companies that no longer exist, I’ve got it all.

History teaches a great deal, and battles have been won and lost in the search wars since the concept of choice was introduced to search. How appropriate on the day Hitwise announces that Google is pulling 69 percent of all search activity that we take a look back at how we got here.

Every month, I get trend reports from just about every provider, and every month Google grows stronger. Yahoo is just under 19 percent, MSN has about 5.5 percent, and Ask is hanging in there slightly ahead of 4 percent. We’re once again at a crossroads, and one that looks oddly familiar.

Be Kind, Rewind

To break the evolution of Internet search into its simplest terms, one company tried using humans to answer search queries for content; another tried using a program with little robots to crawl and index content. Only one company figured out how to monetize the process and they ended up suing Google for taking the idea.

Idealab settled out of court with Google, Yahoo decided that it would rather buy than build its search technology in the form of a company called Overture Services. Overture started out as Idealab’s way to make money by selling search listings, originally called GoTo.

Right before all of this search advertising craziness gained critical mass, everyone in the interactive marketing business thought GoTo was a big joke. Search engine specialists were few, focusing mainly on technology rather than advertising. Those focused on interactive advertising (formerly known as “new media”) were really only interested in graphic representations of ads.

The Tough Road

In 2000, search engine advertising spending was only about $109 million, according to data from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). By 2003, spending was around $2 billion. With amazing growth comes chaos, and that’s exactly what was happening in the summer of 2003.

Yahoo supplemented, or featured depending on your perspective, Google’s natural or algorithmic search results in its own results because Yahoo was focused on the world as we knew it: e-mail, news, personals, and, of course, graphic display advertisements.

According to Nielsen/NetRatings, there were 42.9 million people visiting Google in March 2003, while 38.9 million were Yahooing and 36.9 million went to MSN. Here’s the problem: users spent more than 26 minutes on Google while spending just ahead of eight and 10 minutes on MSN and Yahoo, respectively.

Search Guru Wins

The numbers meant competition was tight, yet audiences spent nearly twice the amount of time on Google over Yahoo and three times that of MSN. If Yahoo was such a rich portal and MSN was an Internet powerhouse, why were visitors spending so much time with Google?

Also in 2003, Interbrand conducted a survey that asked 1,317 consumers which brands they viewed as high impact. Four of the top five — Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Apple, and Ikea — were pretty predictable. A dominating 15 percent of respondents said Google was the number one brand.

As August 2003 wound down, analysts began to predict that Yahoo and Google were going to separate. Yahoo had just purchased Overture Services and the popular algorithmic search site, Inktomi. Sites that seemed to be happily making money on these little search ads were separating and competing to build giant money making machines.

Monday Morning Touchdown

Where the heck was Microsoft in all of this? MSN was having build-or-buy discussions and starting to build its own index while serving up search results from Yahoo-owned companies.

Yahoo was still using Google to provide search results in August 2003. Terry Semel, Yahoo’s chief executive at the time, planned to integrate all of its assets vertically and turn the focus back to the core business of search. He was even quoted in USA Today as saying, “Yahoo will now own all the crucial elements of an end-to-end search offering.”

Well, folks, our search to pinpoint the exact time of death of the buzz phrase “end-to-end” has… well… ended.

Yahoo hoped to integrate large acquisitions too fast while Google stayed its course on core disciplines while making small complimentary acquisitions and smart build-outs. One could argue that Google built its assets from an in-house culture and Yahoo tried to assemble theirs from multiple acquisitions.

Today, Microsoft is trying to do the same thing Yahoo failed at five years ago. How well do you think it’s going to work this time?

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