Headlines are screaming "Yahoo gives up quest for search dominance" and "Yahoo cedes search to Google", and "Yahoo: Not a goal to overtake Google". "We don't think it's reasonable to assume we're going to gain a lot of share from Google," Chief Financial Officer Susan Decker said in an interview. "It's not our goal to be No. 1 in Internet search. We would be very happy to maintain our market share." The Yahoo blog has responded "Are you kidding?"
What are the market share numbers? ComScore reported the Numbers for the US market as of November 2005; Google 40%, Yahoo 30%, MSN 14%, AOL 9%, and Ask Jeeves 6%. I think what Ms. Decker meant was that Yahoo can have a very profitable business if they maintain their 30% market share, not that they were ceding the market to Google. Thomas Hawk agrees that Yahoo is not giving up.
What should search engines do to take market share and win new markets? There are three potentially huge search businesses where Google is vulnerable. Google will not crumble to the ground, but they can be seriously slowed down if another start-up does a great job at Mobile Search, Local Search, or Classified Listings Search. The major search engines have feeble offerings in these areas. No one has done it well. These are potentially huge businesses with no dominant leader.
It is important to remember that 7 years ago when Google was just emerging that there were already huge dominant players in search. AltaVista, Excite, Lycos, Infoseek, FAST, Ask Jeeves, and others were dominating the search business. It didn't look too promising for a start-up in the search business. Personalized portals were the rage. AOL, Yahoo, and MSN actually outsourced their search service. Search was simply one of many services, and not a good one at that because it didn't keep users on your site.
Today Mobile Search, Local Search, and Classified Listings Search, are opportunities with no dominant leader. Each one of them are billion dollar businesses.
Mobile Search is potentially the largest and most lucrative opportunity but also the hardest to do well. There are hundreds of millions more phones and mobile devices than there are PCs. Mobile devices will become the communication and computing platform of choice within 5 years. It already is the platform of choice with teenagers. Have you ever watched a teenager do text messaging on a phone? Have you watched them take pictures with their phone, send them to friends, download ring tones, share contact lists? Europe and Asia are way ahead of the USA in adoption and advanced use of cell phones.
The secret to success in mobile search will be the user interface design. This means both the ease of entering queries and the clear presentation of search results tailored for the mobile device. Phones use voice to communicate. Why not allow the user to enter commands and search queries via voice rather than text entry? Why not return the results via computer generated voice rather than text? Why not allow the user to get the results both ways? Voice recognition is way better today that it was 5 years ago. The problem with voice recognition on a PC has always been the lack of a good microphone. The phone has a perfect microphone already built in. I am sure there is someone out there doing this already but they obviously haven't solved all the UI problems. This will be big!!
Local Search is an enormous business opportunity that has been germinating for more than 5 years. It is about to pop. In fact, mobile search may be the catalyst to growing the local search business. Again, local search has been around for a while. No one has done it well or completely. No one has a business model that makes sense for the local merchants or advertisers. There is probably more advertising money spent on local advertising and Yellow Pages than there is on web marketing today. It is a huge market in need of innovation. Local search is hard because many of the local businesses, schools, or government agencies don't have web sites, or sites with good information. This might be an area where user generated content services and social networking/filtering technologies will help provide useful information. Today there is a huge base of users who are willing, even anxious, to contribute useful content. Look at Wikipedia, blogs, and other user generated content services. Providing an environment where users can contribute to providing better results will be one of the keys to success in this market. It will take a new and different approach to make Local Search work. There is a fortune waiting for whoever figures this out.
Classified Listings is the largest advertising business in the world. Newspapers make more money off simple classified listings than they do from the fancy display ads. Ebay is basically a giant classified listing service with an auction service attached to it. Craig's List is probably the biggest on-line classified service, but again there isn't a solid innovative business model associated with it. This is a fragmented market with poor data sources, that needs automation, scale, user interaction, and an innovative business model.
The secret to success in all three of these businesses could be the business model. Remember that Google was successful against its huge competitors because it brought a new business model to the table. They only allowed text ads, only allowed ads relevant to search results, and auctioned off the search terms to the highest bidder in a fully automated auction. They didn't have the expense of thousands of highly paid ad sales people. These business model approaches were responsible for the financial success of Google. There were also technical innovations that were responsible for their quality search results.
Mobile search may require a new business model that incents the carriers, or a new search paradigm that uses the phone number rather than a word as the search term, or employ GPS and mapping to target results. Mobile search may need user interface innovations that store previous queries, use those queries to refine new results, pre-load search terms and attributes, take advantage of phone numbers, contacts, and URLs already stored in the phone, etc. Maybe optical character recognition or photo recognition, or voice recognition could be used to enter queries. Good voice recognition software could be the key to success here.
Local search and Classified search are as much a business model problem as they are a technical problem. Ten years ago no one thought eBay could work on a national or global scale. It was the simple business model and eBay community protections against fraud that made it work. Innovative approaches to business models and user interaction will be the keys to making Local search and Classified Listing search work well.
These are huge markets that could be bigger than Google today. There is no dominant leader and there is lots of room for innovation. The perfect environment for The Next Big Thing.