4 Ways to Beat Google at Search

Josh Catone

Today a new search engine launched called Cuil. Because of the resumes of the company’s founders — two are former Google employees — comparisons with Google have been fast and furious. Take a sample of this mornings headlines covering the launch: Search site aims to rival Google (BBC), New search engine takes aim at Google (CNET), Cuil Launches — Can This Search Start-Up Really Best Google? (Search Engine Land), Cuil joins Google, others in search for better search (LA Times), etc.

Fair or not, the the bar has been set super high by the media. So far, Cuil hasn’t seemed to have impressed many people, myself included. Results seem less relevant for many searches than on Google, and the site has been experiencing loads of technical problems in the few hours since its launch. The latter is forgivable — many high profile startups trip on launch day — but the first isn’t a great sign. Worse than Google won’t beat Google. Just as good as Google won’t beat Google. Even a little bit better than Google isn’t going to beat Google.

In order to beat Google on technology, you have to introduce some vast improvements to get people to switch. When Powerset launched in May, I put the site through a quick head-to-head with Google. The results were that for most queries, Powerset didn’t do a markedly better job of producing better results than Google. “If Google remains ‘good enough,’ Powerset will have a hard time convincing people to switch,” I wrote. Or in other words, unless your technology is vastly superior to Google’s, most people won’t be bothered to switch.

Cuil’s technology gimmick is the size of its index: 121 billion pages as opposed to Google’s estimated 40 billion or so.

Cuil also touts a better ranking algorithm based on “content and relevance” rather than “superficial popularity metrics” — a direct shot at Google’s PageRank. But their major selling point, their big “wow” factor, is their huge search index. The problem, though, is that competing with Google isn’t just a matter of competing with them on technology anymore. Google has become so deeply ingrained in the psyche of web users that getting them to switch to a new search engine is like trying to get people to use some type of plastic building blocks that aren’t LEGO.

4 Ways to Beat Google

Google isn’t invincible, but to unseat them from the search throne you have to do more than create a search engine that’s just mildly better at producing relevant results.

1. Create Far Superior Technology

The first way to beat Google, and the path that most search startups gunning for the big dog take, is to beat them on technology. But as I said earlier, to do that you have to be vastly better. I mean vastly superior. Cuil hasn’t impressed so far, and neither did Powerset. Yahoo! is trying to head down this road as well by opening up their search results pages to outside developers in the hope that the result will look better than Google’s offering.

However, for most queries, for most people, Google works well enough. It is rare that I can’t find what I need on Google — sometimes it takes a few refinements of my query, but generally Google comes through in the end. The same could be said for Live or Yahoo!, but Google still manages to get about 75% of my searches. Is their search tech that much better than Yahoo!’s or Microsoft’s? Nope. But it used to be, and in the time that it was I got used to relying on it, so now it is up to the other guys to come up with something better enough to make me want to switch. It hasn’t happened yet.

2. Disrupt Their Ad Market Stranglehold

“Google doesn’t make money on search – it makes money on advertising,” said ReadWriteWeb’s Alex Iskold a few weeks ago. And that’s an important point to consider because a second way to dethrone Google is to hurt it in the pocket book.

My former colleague Emre Sokullu suggested a way for Microsoft to do that in February. Sokullu’s plan called for Microsoft to split up their ad business into three parts: inventory, placement, and parameters, and then allow any third party to sell ads or services on any part of that open ad supply chain. The idea was to create a buying and selling environment that would be more open and attractive than what Google offers, and allow smart third party developers to come up with new and more effective ways to serve and target ads (in the same way that Yahoo! is hoping third party developers will come up with better ways to serve search results). That’s the sort of plan that is just crazy enough to work, and if it did it would have a serious impact on Google’s business.

3. Get to New Markets Before They Do

There will be 900 million mobile search users by 2011 accounting for $2.3 billion in ad revenue. Mobile web usage is exploding and beating Google to mobile search would be a huge win for anyone looking to unseat the kind of the search market.

Unfortunately for would-be challengers Google already dominates mobile search as it does web search. However, less than half of mobile searches rate their Google experience an 8-10 on a scale out of 10 according to Nielsen Mobile. So there is a lot of room for technology improvements in mobile search, more so than in web search.

4. Be Mediocre, But Be Persuasive

The final way to beat Google is to just pull in more eyeballs. This is where beating Google becomes less of a technology issue and more of a PR issue — it’s also the least likely path to beating Google. Microsoft, even though they’re in a distant third place, may be the best suited to attack Google in this manner.

As we noted last week, Live search is coming to Facebook this fall, which is a way for Microsoft to get in front of 80 million users with the flick of a switch. Even though Microsoft’s search technology is just “good enough” — or not good enough to get people to switch based solely on tech — if they can get their search box in front of enough eyeballs they could start pulling users away from Google. Unlikely, but plausible.