In pre-literate societies, priests were the sole repositories of knowledge. For millennia after writing was invented, priests doubled as librarians. Melvil Dewey developed his Decimal System only in the 1870s.
In the digital age, the art of searching has become an entirely separate domain of knowledge. It is only in the past 15 years that search has become location-independent. It is the biggest entirely new business opportunity spawned by the Web.
The Web has rendered all previous marketing and service delivery channels obsolete. The 21st century avatars of gambling, gaming and pornography (GGP), for instance, are utterly Web-driven. But GGP existed before the web-enabled mutation and exponential growth.
Search as an industry was inconceivable in the pre-Net era. Yet, just 12 years after its first search engine launch, Google earned 2008 revenues of $22 billion. All that lolly came directly from its ability to efficiently conduct searches and present search results in convenient formats.
Search engines generate revenue by selling targeted advertising. A search engine creates good search and indexing algorithms and builds an interface that makes it easy to find information. Ad-revenues are based on viewership, click-throughs and conversion rates.
Many papers have been written about this value-chain. Subsidiary industries such as search engine optimisation (SEO) and adword-analysis (AA) are derivatives. SEOs tweak websites to improve search visibility. AA determines "fair pricing" of key words and helps advertisers determine which words to bid for, in sponsored search results.
It's difficult to get a handle on the global market. According to Statcounter, about 90 per cent of searches are conducted on Google with Yahoo running a very distant second with less than 6 per cent. The revenue split could be different but it is overwhelmingly dominated by Google.
In the US, which is still the biggest Net market, Google owns close to 65 per cent of market share according to ComScore. Yahoo generates around 20 per cent of search revenue and MSN around 8 per cent.
The market is liable to continue growing fast. Global broadband penetration is a very long way from saturation and mobile search penetration is multiplying. Search in many major languages is still in its infancy.
In the past month, Google's supremacy has been challenged by two formidable new launches. Steven Wolfram has adapted his elegant Mathematica, to provide a "decision engine". Mathematica has the ability to calculate indefinite integrals, for instance, and it's close to indispensable in academia and engineering colleges.
Wolfram Alpha offers definite answers to questions rather than pages of search results. For example, Wolfram Alpha's response to "How many miles does a man have to walk before you can call him a man?" is "The answer is blowing in the wind according to Bob Dylan".
The other new player is Bing, a new SE from Microsoft. Bing is a conventional search engine and the successor to Live. It supposedly has an algorithm that will help win better ad-revenue share. Early days yet and Google has responded with Google Squared, which offers a more interesting way to organise searches.
This may be a new inflection point. Wolfram Alpha and Google Squared are demonstrably different ways to search for digital information. SEOs and AAs will now have to second-guess new algorithms.
The competition between search engine providers can only be beneficial to users and sometime in the not too distant future, they may completely supersede priests and librarians.