Search Engines: No Longer about Search
2004 was a particularly interesting year for Internet search; we saw a lot of new search engines appearing on the scene, a number of purchases and a lot of innovations, particularly in the last quarter, with Microsoft bringing out its Beta MSN Search , Google doubling the size of its index , releasing Google Scholar  and Google Suggest . We also saw a rise in the number of desktop search applications, particularly from Google  and Microsoft , and an increase in attempts to provide a personalised version of popular search engines. Each of these was of interest in its own right, and it was tempting just to choose one or two to write about, but as the year closed I thought it would be interesting to see if and how all of these innovations fitted together.
The Big Problem for the Corporations
One of the major problems for search engines is that of loyalty, and it's a Holy Grail that a lot of them have been seeking. You can find brand loyalty in a lot of places in a library context; librarians will continue to buy new editions of books because they've bought the previous edition, or they'll have huge runs of titles, or they will continue to subscribe to paid services, and indeed one could argue that simply by purchasing a service they have shown their loyalty, at least for the period of the subscription.
However, because search engine usage is free, search engines cannot rely on that level of loyalty, and search engine users can switch from engine to engine as they wish. I often hear people saying things like 'I really used to like AltaVista, but changed to Google because it was better', and it makes perfect sense to me - why use a search engine that isn't as good as the competition? It's true to say that Google has a huge number of users, but my feeling is that this is because it's a good search engine - it provides (usually) good results and it's innovative. Other people will use Google not because they necessarily think that it's the best search engine out there, but because everyone else uses it. I don't however see this as a 'brand loyalty', it's more a question of pragmatism; if something better comes along there's every chance that people will switch to that search engine instead. It's happened before (with AltaVista being a prime example) and it can happen again, and it has to be a major concern for the big players in the market. Just because Google is Number 1 doesn't mean that will always be the case, and indeed I wrote an article for Ariadne about the Google backlash  which I feel illustrates that being Number 1 is a problem in its own right.
What search engines (and the corporations that own them) need to do is to obtain the same kind of loyalty that other companies or products inspire in their users, but it's very difficult to achieve this if the product you are 'selling' is essentially free, as users can migrate from one product to another as they see fit. Just being very good at what they do isn't really enough; being the best in a particular field doesn't guarantee popularity as the well-worn example of Betamax and VHS video formats has already shown us.
So how can the search engine corporations get that level of loyalty from a fickle public? The developments and purchases that took place in 2004 give us a fairly clear example of how these corporations feel that they can do it, and that's by providing a whole raft of products that work neatly together, essentially trying to lock us into using one product because we use another. Being a 'good search engine' isn't really enough these days, and while there will always be a place for good individual search engines (and I could name a dozen or more that fall into that category), it's not going to inspire the sort of loyalty that will keep us going back to them time after time. So how are the search engine corporations working to get that loyalty?
The Complete Package
A good example of how search engines can get us to continue to use their product are the toolbars. While a toolbar is useful for a searcher, they are even more useful for the engines. A toolbar sitting in a prominent place in the browser window is constantly reminding us of the existence of that search engine - it's very easy (as it is intended to be) to simply click into that little box to run a search, without having to go to the search engine page itself. I'm as guilty of it as anyone else; if I want to find some information I'll simply type my search into the toolbar window and run it. It's quick, easy and it works, but what it doesn't encourage me to do is to think 'Is xyz search engine the best choice for me in this instance?' A toolbar that just offered me that option is not of course going to get very far, so all the toolbars have lots of little extras that encourage me to keep them installed. We all hate pop-ups, so it's an obvious thing to add a pop-up killer to make our lives easier, while giving us another reason to use that toolbar.
The addition of a pop-up killer was a real reason in the early days to install the Google toolbar , because it gave users something that they couldn't easily get elsewhere, and even if you didn't particularly like Google, their product made your life easier, and once the toolbar was installed - well, the search box was there, so why not make use of it? Over the course of 18 months any search engine that was worth its salt produced a toolbar, so the initial attractiveness of a particular toolbar became less valuable, and because these utilities can be installed and uninstalled in a matter of minutes their value diminished very quickly. I don't think a search engine is wonderful because it has a toolbar now, but I do think it is a bit odd if it doesn't at least provide me with the option of installing it, so while it doesn't increase brand loyalty the omission of one does make me wonder if they're serious about search, so I'm less likely to use them. Yes, it's unfair, but equally I'm no longer looking at a search engine just because it can search for me, I'm looking at it as part of a bigger package that can provide more than just search.
One for All, All for One: A Killer Application for Each of Us
So, while toolbars were a good early foray into trying to get brand loyalty, they only work up to a point. It's necessary for search engines to look rather more widely than that. A few years ago there was a lot of talk about the 'killer application' - the one thing that would encourage us to use computers (as you can see, I'm really going back a long way here), but we don't hear so much talk of the killer application now, and that's because we all use computers and we use them for a lot of different reasons, so it doesn't actually make that much sense any longer.
However, the concept of a killer application is still important, because when it comes to using the Internet we all have particular, essential requirements. We all want to search and obtain good results; that's taken as a given, but many people now write weblogs, or they want to be able to find information on their own machines quickly, or they want to be able to share their photographs or music with friends for example. Consequently, it's a market that the search engine corporations have to look at in some detail. Google made a very shrewd purchase when they bought Blogger.com  because they saw very early on how important blogging was going to become and perceived it as a way of leveraging their hold on the market. The simple addition of a Blogger icon to their toolbar immediately captured a group of people who were bloggers, but who might not necessarily have used Google. Once they could see how easy it was to add an entry to their weblog by just clicking on the Blogger icon in the Google toolbar it was an obvious thing to do - just add the toolbar because they want to blog, but since the toolbar was now on their machines, they may as well use Google to search as well. Microsoft has rather belatedly realised the importance of blogging, so it introduced its own concept, Microsoft Spaces, to allow people to create their own weblogs and lo and behold added in a blogging option to its toolbar suite.
Another battleground during the course of 2004 has been in the area of email. Now, email has intrinsically nothing to do with search at all, but Microsoft have Hotmail , and Google introduced Gmail . Email is another of those killer applications, so it makes sense for Google, Microsoft and Yahoo as corporations to get involved with it. Using the Microsoft toolbar I can quickly check to see if I've got any email waiting for me, and when I open my account there's also a nice little search box waiting for me enabling me to search, using, of course, the Microsoft search engine. Exactly the same thing happens with Gmail; I can either search through my email, or search the Web using Google. My choice of email package also ties me into a particular search engine - not because I have to use MSN Search or Google, but because it's easier to do that than type in the appropriate URL and go to another search engine.
Another area worthy of note is the resurgence of the browser wars. The battle between Netscape and Internet Explorer was over several years ago, with Internet Explorer dominant in the field. That's not to say that it's been the only browser out there, since Opera  (as one example) has a following, but it's the browser of choice since it's just there on the desktop waiting to be used. However, Firefox  debuted in 2004, and while no one is saying that it can take on Internet Explorer and win, it should get a healthy slice of the browser market. Although it's an independent product it's interesting to note that it has understandably allied itself with Google, rather than with Microsoft; indeed one of its selling points is that 'Google Search is built right into the toolbar' .
I also found it interesting to note that while MSN Search works quite happily in Firefox, its desktop search (which I'll come to in a moment) does not. One of the early extensions that users could add to Firefox was the Google toolbar, and while I liked the browser, I wasn't prepared to switch to it until that was available. Not because I particularly want to use Google, but I wanted that toolbar so that I could continue to add entries to my weblog quickly and easily, which meant waiting for the toolbar with its Blogger icon. Clearly for me, the 'killer application' is the ability to blog quickly and easily, and I'm not about to use an application which makes this more difficult for me!
Finally we come to desktop search. Again it could be argued that if you look at search engines in their traditional role (as an application that allows you to search for Web pages), search engines have little to do with what's on my own personal machine. However, once you start to look at a search engine as part of a corporation, it's an obvious step to provide this type of functionality. Not because it's a nice thing to provide, but because it ties you into using a particular search engine again. I can search my desktop from Google as easily as I can search the Web, just by clicking on an icon .
In this arena Microsoft does of course have an inherent advantage, since it provides me with my operating system, as it does for millions of other people. Having played with both the Google and Microsoft offerings I think that Microsoft desktop search  is a far superior product to the Google offering; while it's more complex it is far more powerful. However the major disadvantage is that (currently) I can't use the supplied toolbar in Firefox, only in Internet Explorer. Consequently I have to make a choice between ease of use, by switching back to the Microsoft browser, or continuing to use Firefox and having slightly less functionality when it comes to desktop search.
Which Corporation Do You Use?
As users, we're now moving into an entirely different arena, where our choice of search engine affects what other products we use. Alternatively, our choice of other products will inevitably affect our search engine of choice. If I like using Hotmail, I'm going to be attracted to a product that allows me to get easy access to my account, and the Microsoft Toolbar gives me that. If I've got the toolbar loaded I'm going to be more likely to use Microsoft Spaces as my blogging tool, and if I use that as well, I'm more likely to use the toolbar to allow me to search, using - of course - MSN Search. Alternatively, if I like using Google and have its toolbar installed, it makes it easier to choose Blogger as my weblog tool. On the other hand, if I like Firefox as a browser that will mean that I can't (yet) use Microsoft Desktop search to its fullest, so I'll mostlikely stick with the Google offering. Consequently, search engines are becoming much less of an issue as they are tied into a raft of other choices, and increasingly my choice of search engine will come down to what is easiest for me, based on my use of other applications.
I confidently expect that through the rest of 2005 we'll be seeing other search engines providing more add-on utilities; Yahoo is expected to launch its own desktop search function early in the year, Ask Jeeves is launching its own version as well (at the time of writing it is due out in a few days), and other major search engines will also follow suit.
Is this good news for users? I don't really believe that it is. As regular readers will know, I firmly believe that good searchers are people who match what they need to know with what they currently know about a subject and choose a search engine based on that information. The role of other, smaller search engines will continue to be important, and I look to them to provide innovation. Exalead , for example, is in many ways a far superior search engine to either Google or MSN Search, but I'm going to have to remember that it's there and make a conscious effort to use it, and quite frankly, I'm not always going to remember. For many people who don't appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of search engines, or who don't really understand search (and that's going to be the majority of end-users), they'll use whatever is easiest for them, which ultimately means whichever corporation they become tied into first.
My initial point in this article was search engine loyalty. I don't believe that these innovations do actually increase my loyalty to one search engine or another; there are things that I like in Google, and there are things that are better in MSN Search, or another engine. As a result, I'll continue to switch between engines to find what I want, as I suspect most information professionals will; but ease of use will increasingly dictate where I go. It's not loyalty, more like grudging acceptance, which, I suppose, is the next best thing.
- Microsoft Beta Search http://beta.search.msn.com/
- Google Press Centre http://www.google.co.uk/press/descriptions.html#websearch
- Google Scholar http://scholar.google.com/
- Google Suggest http://www.google.com/webhp?complete=1&hl=en
- Google Desktop utility http://desktop.google.com/?promo=app-gds-en-us
- Microsoft Desktop suite http://beta.toolbar.msn.com/
- Phil Bradley, Search Engines: The Google Backlash, April 2004, Ariadne, Issue 39 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue39/search-engines/
- Google Toolbar http://toolbar.google.com/
- Blogger.com http://www.blogger.com
- Hotmail http://www.hotmail.com
- Gmail http://www.gmail.com
- Opera http://www.opera.com/
- Firefox http://www.firefox.com
- Firefox product details http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/
- Google Desktop search http://desktop.google.com/
- Microsoft Desktop search http://beta.toolbar.msn.com/
- Exalead http://www.exalead.com