The last chapter has not been written in the search game. Microsoft MSN Search is every bit as good as Google in terms of size, speed, and relevance. Microsoft has come from behind several times before. I wouldn't bet against them now. MSN Search is just getting started.
The Search by John Battelle is an accurate look at the 'Search Wars" of the late 90's. I was at AltaVista at the time. John got the facts correct, but there is more to the story...there always is. The book really proves the point of my previous post, "Innovate or Imitate". AltaVista, Excite, and GoTo.com failed because of business and strategy decisions, not because of inferior technology.
These companies were first movers with excellent technology. AltaVista was the first real search engine, Yahoo was the first directory, Excite was the first search engine / portal, and GoTo.com was the first pay per click (PPC) search site.
The AltaVista experience is sad to remember. We should have been the "Google" of today. We were pure search, no frills, no consumer portal crap. DEC is guilty of neglect in its handling of AltaVista. Compaq put a bunch of PC guys in charge who relied on McKinsey consultants and copied AOL, Excite, Yahoo and Lycos into the consumer portal game. It should have been clear that being the 5th or 6th player in the consumer portal business wouldn't work. AltaVista spent hundreds of millions on acquisitions that never worked, and spent $100M on a brand advertising campaign. They spent NOTHING to improve core search. That was the undoing of AltaVista.
You need to remember the context of the time. It seemed like every week AOL was announcing a $50M deal to sell traffic. Yahoo was doing it too. The game was build traffic with search, keep them on your site with content, and sell traffic and "screen real estate" to sponsors for $20-$40M a pop up front. There was no proven search business model other than annoying banner ads that were not really contextual.
GoTo.com invented the paid search model where businesses bid against each other for certain search words. I remember the self righteous uproar at the time. Polluting search results with paid advertising masquerading as search results was blasphemous...UN-American. Well, it turned out to be a great idea, and users were smart enough to distinguish between regular results and paid results. In fact, they learned to like the paid results because they were contextual. Had GoTo.com stayed on course with their search destination site they may have emerged the winner.
Both AltaVista and GoTo.com (later called Overture) were in a perfect position to be the Google of today. Both made strategic mistakes that ultimately killed them.
Google deserves a lot of credit. They did four major things right. First, the PageRank algorithm was far superior to any other ranking/relevance method, and still is. Second, their use of cheap, scalable PCs and storage put them at a serious cost advantage over everyone else. Third, their implementation of paid search (AdWords) was simple, elegant, and very effective. Fourth, and maybe most importantly, they stayed the course on focused on search, while everyone else was trying to copy AOL and become a consumer portal. Great decisions.
The last chapter has not been written in the search game. There are many more decisions to be made. There is a long history of "first movers" being eclipsed by "fast followers".