Three reasons why the search industry needs a shake up

Google might be the biggest and richest company around, but its dominance means that the search industry has stagnated and there are no serious contenders for Google’s crown.

In this article I’m going to examine how the undeniable might and competitive prowess of Google is smothering other business models and suppressing innovation in what should be the world’s most creative space.

1) Monopoly stifles innovation

You’ve heard of Bing, Microsoft’s onomatopoeically named search engine, but you probably don’t use it. Only 3.37% of global online searches in the month of July 2015 happened on Bing, according to Statista.


So what’s going on? You probably already know the answer: Google is not only streets ahead of the game, but it also has a monopoly on search, with close to a 90% market share in Q2 2015.

Without serious competitors, Google has free reign. Although the internet giant is widely regarded as one of the most innovative companies around, it nevertheless smothers internal innovation that hurts its margins.

Back in early 2013, Google abandoned its Ad Blocking Plus app despite its popularity, because it violated Google’s terms. The app blocked the ads that were making Google money, so it had to go.

Then there’s the accusation that brings Google’s organic search results into question. As Sascha Segan points out in his article How Google could threaten the web, the EU accuses Google of favoring its own products over those of its competitors in organic search results.

The fact is, Google is an advertiser first and a search engine second. Ads are increasingly prominent and results less satisfying, encouraging users to click on the strategically placed ads, rather than the organic results.


When companies noticeably start putting business first and customer satisfaction second, we immediately see the negative effects of a monopolized market, especially when they are as influential and popular as Google.

2) The ad-based economy is strangling new business models

It’s innovation on a larger scale, outside of Google, that’s truly taking a hit. Of course, we have to make money from the internet and advertising is currently the number one way of doing so, but does it have to be this way?

First off, Google will bring in around $45bn in search revenues by the end of this year. Google’s low pricing dictates terms to the online ad arena, so new companies have their hands tied if they want to carve out a space for their own business. 

Though you could simply view this as healthy competition, I would argue that we are seeing an over-reliance on ad-based revenues and this has stymied other business models from emerging.  

ROI on advertising is deceptive, which makes it hard for producers of smaller apps to make any meaningful revenues. With apps costing anywhere from $3,000 to $150,000 to design and produce, many developers just give up on their idea. Charging even just 99 cents to offset costs is almost impossible, as people have become accustomed to getting everything for free.

Nevertheless, subscription models are a potential alternative. While people are currently being served ads based on the preferences of the majority, a paid search engine would ensure that an individual is privileged above the group, because the individual is paying for the service.

Companies outside of the Google bubble are experimenting with subscriptions services, and aren’t too far off online search. 

Take a look at Pinboard


While not a search site per se, it is a utility that people are willing to shell out for. People pay the bookmarking service for a private, ad-free service that links with Twitter and syncs with other services.

If people are willing to pay for a utilitarian tool like bookmarking, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to think that they would do the same for a search service.

Privacy, personalization and an ad-free internet will become a commodity, which is illustrated by the fact that today’s top paid-apps are all ad blockers. 

Privacy in particular has been a sore point for many over the last few years. Look up a book on Amazon and a little tracking cookie will start displaying ads for the same author in your Facebook account. This may be automated retargeting technology, but it doesn’t stop people from feeling like they’re being watched.

It is not something many are comfortable with. 

Perhaps now is the time to introduce a new private, ad-free search model for this demographic.

3) User experience

You probably can’t think of a search engine that successfully breaks the mold. When was the last time you searched for results on a page that looked completely different from Google, or presented a set of unique or fine-tuned results that weren’t based on simple popularity?

Aesthetically, Bing looks quite a lot like Google, as does Yahoo search and Ask Jeeves. Then again, Google looks quite a lot like Archie, the very first internet search engine to be created. 


We’re hardly breaking new ground when your number one port of call in 2015 looks almost identical to a website that was launched in 1990.

While search engines are more than just their appearance, having evolved and improved immensely since their early days, they are still giving the user much the same experience, albeit more quickly and efficiently. 

We have reached a point when, structurally, all search engines are very similar both in terms of user experience and their output.

There are search engines like Million Short, a utility that deliberately removes the top results from your search to show you sites that would otherwise be hidden, but that’s a brutal axe-swing rather than a precise incision and the results still lack diversity.

Search should be an adventure where you explore related concepts. This requires a dynamic user interface, rather than a static list. 

Although there are paid search services such as Dialog and Lexis with more sophisticated search tools, the current crop of free search engines do not want to take their service in this direction, because it would interfere with their sales algorithm. Instead, they want you to search again and again so their ads keep popping up. Hence the dull robotic UI.

However, if we look to libraries for inspiration, the alternative is a lot more interesting. Libraries, for the 2,000 years since Alexandria, have a classification system that lets you look up one book and then when you find it, chances are you will also discover an alternative of equal or greater appeal.


This kind of intelligent browsing if implemented online, would kill Google’s advertising scheme, which depends on economies of sameness. What if someone looked up travel, but ended up clicking on something else not mainly related by popularity?

It is time to present users with accurate information that they can browse through, explore, and discover.

What we need

When you have a model for a service that hasn’t changed in appearance in 25 years, that only has one major player, and that relies heavily on one type of income, there needs to be diversification. Even if new models are tried and fail, disruption and innovation are what drive things forward.

What we really need is a search engine that uses a social context to springboard to more exploration of the web. I’d pay for that. What we have instead is a Walmartization of the web. Let’s look to a future where search is educational, ad-free and even looks a little different.

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A screenshot of visual search on Pinterest. On the left is a picture of a copper angle-poise lamp, with the words 'Visually similar results' above it. Down the right-hand side are a number of pins showing similar lamps.
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