Mar 202011

Tony Glover

Last Updated: Mar 20, 2011

Standard search engines like that of Microsoft and Google are now vulnerable to a challenge from newcomers such as Blekko.

Emmanuel Dunand / AFP

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The search engine technology that powers the market leader Google is now regarded by many in the industry as obsolete.

Microsoft predicts that will be the fastest-changing technology space over the next decade. And the researcher Forrester believes that as more sophisticated search technology evolves, Google’s search revenues will fall dramatically.

Shar VanBoskirk, a Forrester analyst, says: “We expect competition for keywords to wane as user behaviour splinters across non-traditional ways of searching, and as content becomes curated into private access channels outside of the searchable web.

“Searchable content quality will be erratic, and advertisers will diversify dollars into emerging media. This will deteriorate Google keyword costs and ultimately revenue from traditional keyword-based search ads.”

Ms VanBoskirk believes the internet is splintering because of the rise of proprietary platforms and password-protected social networks such as Facebook.

“Familiar online marketing tools like links, search engine optimisation, and analytics are different or missing in these new environments,” she says.

But new search engines are being developed that are designed to fill the gaps in the rapidly evolving search market. Blekko is one of the dozens of new search engines now set to challenge Google with services that make the search industry giant look like the slow-moving dinosaur its Silicon Valley critics accuse it of being.

According to reports in the Silicon Valley press, Blekko has raised funding to build a search engine that filters results based on the user’s Facebook activity. Only a few months ago, Facebook was valued at US$50 billion (Dh183.65bn) by Goldman Sachs. More recent valuations by other analysts suggest a value closer to $75bn. However, Google’s market value of about $181bn is still more than double Facebook’s estimated worth. But, with more than half a billion users worldwide, Facebook is growing fast and has yet to make a public offering of its shares.

Blekko believes current search technology fails to cater for modern needs. It has spent three years developing an engine that allows users to further refine their searches using only reliable information sources while filtering out spam.

“Building a search engine is a technology play,” said Rich Skrenta, the chief executive and founder of Blekko. “We wanted to make a differentiated product. There are searches you can do on Blekko you cannot do anywhere else.”

Partly by allowing its users to hit a “spam” button, Blekko gradually learns which sites are trusted by users trying to unearth reliable information from the mounting pile of spam and unqualified comment now submerging much of the web.

This undesirable content includes internet search results that have been especially created to appear high in Google’s search results, despite being little more than marketing pitches.

The proposition that standard search engines such as those offered by giants such as Microsoft and Google are now vulnerable to a challenge from a newcomer such as Blekko is rapidly gaining credibility. Angel investors in Blekko, for example, include Marc Andreessen, the creator of the first web browser, and Ron Conway, who has previously invested in Twitter and Google.

But there are Google supporters who point out the road to building a better search engine is littered with the bleached bones of previous search engine start-ups. For example, in 2008 some former Google employees launched Cuil, a high-profile search engine. Cuil finally shut down last September.

There is also the additional likelihood that any company that really did start to challenge Google would rapidly become an acquisition target for the likes of Microsoft and Google. For example, Powerset, a search engine developed to allow users to ask direct questions, was acquired by Microsoft in 2008.

And, like all start-ups, Blekko has its limitations. The most notable is that it is firmly rooted in Silicon Valley culture. Blekko’s global perspective is pure Californian in outlook. Mr Skrenta, its chief executive, has admitted that Blekko is happy to focus on English-speaking content.

But according to Ms VanBoskirk: “There’s no sure way to track consumers across devices. But purchase path mapping, linguistic profiling and technographics analysis can go a long way.”

Linguistic profiling will play a growing role in the increasing specialisation of the search industry. As companies such as Facebook try to grow their user bases, they will increasingly try to tap markets outside the English-speaking world by offering language services on the same level as those enjoyed by US users.

The US giants who have so far dominated the search industry will increasingly face home-grown competition from search engines catering to non-English speaking users. The Arab-speaking world is just one example of a regional market that is now ready to spawn its own search engines.

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