Who is Better Off with One Dominant Player?

Does the idea that your online business relies so much on Google for its traffic let you sleep easy at night? It wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to stay this way. Keep reading to see what one veteran online business owner thinks.

This is a very interesting time we live in right now, from a technology standpoint. It is truly a unique and enriching experience to watch a brand new industry rise from nowhere and see it evolve and change its shape right before your very eyes. Something close in terms of scope and impact might have been the revolution Henry Ford started with the creation of the assembly line, which permitted the mass production of automobiles. This led to a corresponding reduction in price, which made them available to far more people than just the very rich — and the world was never the same. This is also true of the Internet which has changed not only all businesses on a global scale, but how we think and communicate; even how we evolve as human beings will most likely be impacted by the advent of the Internet. This is heady stuff.

One of the many reasons for the breadth and scope of the impact the Internet has had on society is its ability to place even the most obscure information at everyone’s fingertips. Notice I said everyone’s fingertips. I think that’s a very important point. It used to be that knowledge was in the hands of the few and privileged, and in most instances that factor by itself allowed them to maintain that status, until now. So it stands to reason that the cog behind this grand scale machine that is literally moving society toward a more enlightened path is the power of search. Literally, how we find stuff.

Back in the day the Internet’s very first version of search was called “Archie.” Per Wikipedia, “It was created in 1990 by Alan Emtage, a student at McGill University in Montreal. The program downloaded the directory listings of all the files located on public anonymous FTP (File Transfer Protocol) sites, creating a searchable database of filenames.”

Then came “Wandex,” which was an index created by a web crawler developed by a MIT graduate. Then Aliweb, then WebCrawler, then Lycos – you get the idea. Soon thereafter there was a explosion of search engines, including some big ones such as Yahoo, Excite, Infoseek, AltaVista. The interesting thing is all of them worked differently, looked different, and provided very different results. So most often if you were looking for a particular product or service or even an obscure piece of information, you would hit two or three of the search engines until you found what you were looking for.

Many people who remember those days had their personal favorite search engine, but they would be lying if they said they only use XYZ engine because it always returned the best results. [Some of us even tried to get around that problem by using search engines that compiled the results of your search from several different engines, such as Metacrawler. --Ed.] I specifically remember that where I would most often find what I was looking for was almost random – one day Yahoo would have it, the next day AltaVista would help me out, and so on. Then came Google.

See, I remember using Dejanews a lot back then to find what I was looking for. Dejanews wasn’t a search engine, it was a copy of all of the Internet newsgroups in existence. Contained in those newsgroups was a world full of information, dialogue, and comments on thousands and thousands of categories and topics. Generally this information wasn’t incredibly hard to wade through. Google came along and bought Dejanews early on, which to me showed they were going to be a serious player in the search marketplace. Slowly but surely Google improved upon their search interface and the accuracy of the results they produced for searches. Fortunately for Google, their competition did not. Many went defunct or became acquired by other companies who promptly went defunct.

This scenario sort of reminds me of the browser wars. Once upon a time there was Netscape, then a few other browsers were launched, then Microsoft’s Internet Exploder (uh I mean Explorer) was launched last. We all know how that ended up: Microsoft’s IE now commands a dominating 80% of browsers being used today – last to first.

Today Google powers more than 60 percent of all searches executed. That’s a huge number. Companies live and die based on Google’s search results. Let me put it another way: if Google suffered a massive hardware failure and we were forced to run our searches elsewhere the runner up would be Yahoo. Care to venture a guess on the gigantic economic shift that would take place if that ever occurred? Well for starters millions of small and medium sized businesses would fold – my best guess would be well within 3-4 weeks tops. Companies that did well in the Yahoo search engine would thrive and in most instances would double and triple income almost overnight.

Another thing is certain: we would spend a lot more time trying to find whatever it is we are looking for because all other search engines are severely inferior to the level of accuracy that Google has. There I said it. You know it is true. We all like to think otherwise, but I don’t know of a single person who uses a different search engine first when trying to locate something on the Internet.

This is mind blowing to me when you consider how much revenue is out there. Certainly there is plenty of incentive for the Yahoos and MSNs of the world to improve upon their search offerings, and you can’t say they aren’t trying because they are. They are pouring millions and millions into research and development, headcount, and competitive analysis; yet I think it’s safe to say that none of them are even near Google in terms of market reach, usage, accuracy, you name it.

So this leads me to the premise of this entire rant. Which would you prefer? One mammoth search engine company who does search as well as Google (the way it is today) or a bunch of smaller, more diverse search engines who don’t handle search quite as well as Google but share the market a lot more evenly than they would with Google in the picture (the way it was).

Each of these scenarios has prolific pros and cons, and even as I sit here typing these words I find myself pondering which I would prefer. On the one hand I really enjoy being able to find exactly what I am looking for very quickly 90 percent of the time by using Google; as a user of the service I am a huge fan. With that being said, as a business owner whose business is primarily online, I must admit that the current state of affairs, with Google dominating all other engines and 70 percent of our traffic coming from Google, it scares the living daylights out of me.

Google is constantly doing tweaks to how it decides to rank sites based on certain search terms that are used. We know almost immediately whenever Google runs one of these updates, because traffic will either spike up or down, thus impacting our business in a big way — and for the most part, there isn’t much we can do about it. Luckily we have a large repeat visitor base; that helps us get through the lean times when Google runs an update that doesn’t favor us, and we are able to capitalize significantly when a update does go our way.

The main point is this: no business owner likes to think that there is a single outside force which can make or break their business at any time it wishes. So like I said, it’s really a bittersweet situation. I think if I could wave a magic wand and create my perfect solution it would look something like this: there would be a handful of significant players in the search industry who offered search products that were clearly effective but different from each other. In this way not all of the searches would reside with a single search engine and traffic would be evenly spread out among the engines.

In this way, if one of the engines decides to start tweaking their algorithms or if they simply had a hardware/software issue it wouldn’t be as if the entire Internet blinked out. I’m a big fan of redundancy; my computers are always RAID 0 and I knowingly sacrifice performance for stability. That would be my approach here as well. I must admit that I am surprised so much time has passed and yet competition to Google still seems too distant with no end to the gap in sight.

I am willing to bet if we conducted a poll on this very topic, business owners who are situated online would be leaning toward a more balanced approach, and individuals who are not as reliant on the Internet for income would prefer one awesome search engine as opposed to several inferior ones. I think both scenarios have pros and cons. As I said earlier, I still am on the fence on this issue, but I do admit I would probably sleep a lot better at night knowing my entire business isn’t reliant upon one company. How about you?

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