Is Google's user interface outdated?

Silicon Valley executives say Google isn't doing enough to innovate on its search results pages, especially in an era of near-ubiquitous broadband.

REDWOOD CITY, Calif.--Google has long been known for its speed, relevance and that simple user interface.

But Silicon Valley executives scouting for the next big thing in search say Google isn't doing enough to innovate on its search results pages, especially in an era of near-ubiquitous broadband.

One venture capitalist of that opinion is Mark Kvamme of Sequoia Capital, an early investor in Google. He has a vested interest in the area: In 2005, Kvamme and his firm put in $500,000 to fund a company called Searchme, a visual search engine that launched in recent weeks by invitation only. Sequoia has since invested millions of dollars in Searchme, whose results pages take a cue from the deck-of-cards visual display of Apple's iTunes.

"I have a hard time going back to Google--the only reason I go back is coverage. (Searchme) only has a billion pages," Kvamme said here Tuesday at the Dow Jones Web Ventures conference.

Jim Lanzone, former head of search engine Ask.com who's now an entrepreneur-in residence at Redpoint Ventures, piled on that sentiment.

"People need access to information. I don't think a list of links is the best solution anymore," Lanzone said during panel session focused on Google. He highlighted Ask advances in visual search tools and a 3D interface.

Of course, these executives have a stake in technology that rivals Google's. But their comments could be seen as a backdrop against a fresh fight over Web search after years of Google dominance. It seems like the obvious contest is between Google and a potentially unified Microsoft-Yahoo. But behind the scenes, there's a new crop of start-ups that are attempting to innovate in search, and investors are eager to fund them.

New or coming rivals include Sequoia-backed Mahalo, a human-powered search engine; The Founders Fund-backed Powerset, a search engine making a big bet on artificial intelligence in search; and Cuill, a stealth search player founded by former Google engineers. These search aspirants see holes in Google's core business of search as the company Google spreads its focus into many various industries, such as mapping, online payments, and user-generated video.

"It's a capital intensive business, that's the dirty little secret of search."
--Imran Khan, JP Morgan analyst

JP Morgan analyst Imran Khan was cautious about new search upstarts because, he said, it's difficult to gain market share. How fast a search engine can deliver results often determines whether people will use it, and speed isn't cheap, he said. Companies must run many data centers to serve fast results, and that can price many start-ups out of the business.

"It's a capital intensive business, that's the dirty little secret of search," Khan said.

Serving up visual search results will certainly be bandwidth intensive. That's why Searchme is slowly ratcheting up usage of its search engine. It's in beta-testing mode now, but the company will likely fully launch next month.

Still, Lanzone specifically called visual search like Searchme's a "feature" of an engine, but not the raison d'etre for a new company. He said companies like Ask.com and Snap have experimented in this area before.

Also, to be fair, Google has come up with new ways to find information. Last year, for example, it introduced universal search, which weaves video, images and other kinds of search results into the main results page.

But by displaying Web pages graphically, Searchme and others could open up a new way for people to find information. (The company also categorizes Web pages in its engine.) Kvamme referred to it as visual relevance, or choosing Web pages by their appearance, rather than their ranking.

Like the other panelists, he applauded Google for its search innovation and advertising network. But he said it's fallen down on Google Video (which was launched before YouTube), social networking, and Gmail, which has yet to overcome Web mail rivals. It's also stagnated in UI.

"Google has done some things very well, but there are still a lot of areas to innovate in," said Kvamme.

 

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