Google and Microsoft Fight for Search Future -- Whatever It May Be

Last Updated Aug 26, 2010 6:19 PM EDT

Just last year, it seemed as though everyone knew where search was headed. Google (GOOG) dominated, Microsoft (MSFT) would do anything to get ahead, and Yahoo (YHOO), ever high tech's Rodney Dangerfield, just wanted some respect. But the surface of a river can deceive, and the water may move faster than you thought. Bing gained major market share over the last year, Americans search a lot less than they did a year ago, Google pushes to distinguish itself in a market people once assumed that it owned.

The search industry is far more turbulent than it has seemed. Certainty that bordered on complacency started with Google's overwhelming market share. Everyone assume that past success guaranteed future performance. And the company still has an enormous chunk of the market. But look at Nielsen numbers from last month:


Bing was up 2 percent from last month and 51 percent from a year ago. As Bing begins to power not just the U.S. portion of Yahoo's search, but all of it, it suggests that Microsoft, which was the butt of jokes for a long time, could have 28 percent of the market. No, that still wouldn't be an equal to Google, but it's a big improvement from last year and it's moving in a threatening direction. But then, back in February I thought that Google acted as though the combination of Microsoft and Yahoo was a danger.

Google's been struggling with search engine development for a while. At the same time that I saw fear in the company's eyes, my BNET colleague Chris Dannen wondered whether Google Maps was falling behind Bing's offerings. In June, Google literally tried copying Bing's visual look. Google is clearly a company looking over its shoulder, and for good reason.

However, there's a bigger potential upset -- not who's ahead in traditional search, but how the whole category is doing:


The number of searches performed in the US were down 16 percent year over year. Why? Social networks offer an alternative. Instead of trying to concoct the right mix of search terms and then sift through the overwhelming number of responses, most certainly including the mass of content mill porridge, they just ask people they know. Or sort of know. It may not ultimately be as useful, but it's faster and easier, and no one ever went broke overestimating how lazy people can be. The results also tell in the specific numbers for Google: down 17 percent year over year. If that keeps up, it is going to punish the company's virtually sole source of revenue.

That's why Google looks to its new real time search for "up-to-the-second social updates, news articles and blog posts about hot topics around the world." The irony is that Google's answer is to force the personal suggestion nature of recommendations on Facebook and Twitter into ... the search that people have clearly begun to tire of.

And Yahoo? It still wants more respect and insists that it is still a search engine "and in a strong second place." Senior search products vice president Shashi Seth argues that Boeing and Airbus are still aircraft manufacturers, even though they outsource their engines, and that HTC makes mobile handsets even though it doesn't create the chips.

Yeah, and I make dinner even though I don't raise the meat or grow the vegetables. But when the aircraft company outsources the aircraft, but keeps making wheels, I'd say that it's no longer makes airplanes.

Ah, well. Some things never change.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.