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Searching for that Google-beater

By Taylor Buley, Forbes
April 02, 2009 09:18 IST
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There is life after Google -- though the increasing number of search alternatives popping up around the U.S. are careful not to take the search giant head-on.

With three-quarters of all search traffic, Google might seem unassailable. But potential competitors are busy developing new ways of finding information and hunting down the investors they need to support them. Last year, more than 50 new search companies raised $330 million in venture financing, according to MoneyTree.

So how are these aspiring search engines proceeding? Mostly, by not following the example of (pronounced "cool"). Cuil's name means "knowledge" in Gaelic, but it might as well stand for "cautionary tale."

The Menlo Park, Calif.-based company was founded by former Google executives and made a splash when it debuted last May by bragging of a search index three times the size of Google's. It got the expected traffic bump from curiosity seekers, but traffic quickly cooled off as people returned to Google. However better Cuil might have been than Google, it wasn't better enough to get users to make the switch.

Lesson learned. "There's really not much point in building another search engine," says Anand Rajaraman, co-founder of Kosmix, one of the new, specialized search companies. Trying to out-Google Google, he says, "is the wrong attitude and the wrong approach."

The right approach, investors hope, is the sort of niche-oriented search offered by The San Mateo, Calif.-based company started life in 2004 as a facial-recognition software, aiming to help users sort and tag their photos. But Chief Executive Munjal Shah revamped it for shopping. Give a picture of a product you like -- such as a favorite watch -- and its computers will find stores selling it, as well as suggest alternatives. The site is especially popular with women shopping for shoes.

Shah says was able to use roughly 80% of the code from the previous iteration of his computer vision technology, and is now forecasting $20 million in revenues this year, up from $10 million last year and $1 million the year before.

Rather than use pictures, another new search engine, Aardvark, asks questions. Pose it a query, and Aardvark looks through your extended social network, pulling information from sites like Facebook. The search engine finds those best in a position to field your question and asks them if they'd care to answer it. It then forwards whatever answers it gets.

To a reporter's question, "What's a good cure for writer's block?," Aardvark was able, in a couple of minutes, to come back with advice from Joe M. in New York: "Force yourself to write 3-5 paragraphs about a topic: Go to a book on your shelf, open to page 87. Paragraph 3, and the first noun and that will be your topic."

Aardvark says that over time, its software gets smarter about which users are the most likely to answer questions on which topics.

In contrast, Kosmix is trying to carve out a new niche by smartly combining results from other search engines. In response to a topic search, its computers automatically create a page full of information, pulled from big sites like Wikipedia and YouTube, as well as blogs, Twitter feeds and more.

Rajaraman and Kosmix Co-Founder Venky Harinarayan say their computers comb through 10,000 Web sites and applications. Want to research a trip to Hawaii? Kosmix can find you opinions from Twitter, a guide on Mahalo and the latest photos from Flickr, then display it all on one page ordered by relevance.

Users also see advertisements, of course; all of these sites plan on making money by selling ads or cashing in on affiliate referral fees.

The new mini-search engines are still a tiny part of search, estimated to have less than 2% of total search traffic. But Web traffic monitor Hitwise says they are growing rapidly. Kosmix has seen its market-share grow 730% year-over-year. On Microsoft-owned Powerset, which answers questions asked in plain English, traffic is double from that of a year ago.

These companies sense an opening in part because Google searches continue to get longer, with users giving it more and more search terms in the hopes of finding ever-more detailed niche information.

Forrester Research analyst Shar VanBoskirk says it isn't a technology gap with Google that is holding these companies back. Rather, she said, they have to deal with the juggernaut of the Google brand. "The biggest problem I see facing any emerging search engine is the same problem facing Microsoft, which is critical mass of users," she says.

And even if the new search engines persuade users to try more than just Google, they still face the prospect of Google moving into their turf. Blog search used to be a separate market segment in search, with several companies battling to dominate. After Google added blog search to its main search menu, there was the predictable shake-out.

Of course, this also means that should any of these companies become a success inside their niche, they would become a Google acquisition target -- which may be all the motivation any of them need. "I think it's fair to say that the conventional search game is over," says Kosmix's Rajaraman. "But that doesn't mean the Internet game is over."

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Taylor Buley, Forbes
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