That’s usually how it begins. Vivek Wadhwa’s great TechCrunch rant on how Google has become filled with spam and we “desperately” need a new search engine is right now only a sign that the digerati are willing to switch away from Google.
But it’s a big enough sign to pay attention to. In the late 1990s, Yahoo was the world’s dominant search engine, a beloved consumer brand that looked impossible to displace atop the internet’s food chain. But it was too big and gaudy, filled with irrelevancy and distraction. So the tech set migrated to a simpler, cleaner, better search engine with an even weirder name called Google. And because Google was much faster and better than anything else on the market, and because the tech set like to tell their friends and their grandmothers about the latest thing, and because Google stumbled into one of the most amazing business models in history, Yahoo began its long, painful slide into irrelevancy and Google became one of the biggest companies in the world.
Is the same thing happening?
Google is threatened on many fronts, but the fronts we usually discuss are peripheral ones, like social networks or closed mobile ecosystems. Google’s superiority in search and the power of its brand means no one (outside Redmond) believes someone might simply out-google Google, i.e. “just” build a better search engine that slowly but surely grows big enough to displace Google, just like Google did to Yahoo. But after all, why not? Just because Google is “better”? The graveyard of companies is full of beloved products that were better in every way — until they weren’t.
Wadhwa lauds up-and-coming search startup Blekko, whose main distinguishing feature is “slashtags”, filters for results that anyone can build around a topic, like “health” or “sports.” It doesn’t sound like much, and indeed right now it plausibly isn’t, but it’s a powerful idea: after all, it sounds a lot like that (until now?) overhyped holy grail, social search. If you have to build your own slashtags, Blekko sounds like a lot of work, something that can’t beat Google’s ease of use. But if you can use other people’s slashtags, and if Blekko — and its users — remembers the slashtags you use and suggests new ones and becomes smarter the more you use it, now that sounds very interesting.
The worst thing for Google is that if they introduced something like slashtags, the first ones to pounce on them would be spammers and marketers, making their use self-defeating. Because Blekko is much smaller, that makes the problem more manageable for them.
We’ve also been bullish about the potential of Hunch’s taste graph. Another contender is Quora. What is a question and answer site, after all, if not a social search engine? If you think social search is just a mirage, you should pay attention to South Korea, where Naver’s social search engine owns 70% of the market to Google’s 2%. South Korea is South Korea, but people thought ideas that got started there like ringtones and virtual goods would never be huge businesses in the US — until they were.
So who knows? Maybe Google’s Achilles heel isn’t some new outlier, but the oldest one in the book: a better mousetrap.