What would it take to beat Google?

We take a look at the key success factors and the opportunities for other companies in the search engine space.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
6 min read

The search engine space is filled with a slew of companies that are vying to become the next Google. What is the "next Google"? It's a search engine that captures the majority of the search engine market--a feat that hasn't been accomplished since Google claimed that crown a decade ago when it finally beat out AltaVista and Yahoo.

Yahoo is still a major player internationally even though it's losing ground both in the U.S. and abroad. Microsoft is scrambling to capture double-digit market share. There are many smaller search engines like Quintura and Cuil, the self-proclaimed "Google Killer." The competition is fierce. But so far, it isn't dangerous to Google.

According to research firm Hitwise, approximately 69.5 percent of Internet searches in the U.S. were completed on Google's service during 2008, representing an 8 percent increase over 2007.

Yahoo and Microsoft, the second- and third-place search engines, respectively, didn't fare nearly as well. Yahoo captured 19.2 percent of the search market during 2008, representing an 11 percent drop for the year, while Microsoft accommodated just 5.9 percent of all searches during 2008, a decline of 32 percent since 2007. Ask.com rounded out the top four with 3.8 percent market share, growing 1 percent year over year.

It's quite evident that if there will be another Google, the numbers (and growth) are not working in the challenger's favor. But let's look at the qualitative hurdles a challenger would have to clear:

Relevance and speed

In an interview last year with a Google representative on my podcast, the CNET Digital Home Podcast, I was told that the key to Google's success, and more importantly, a key component in its corporate culture, is its willingness and desire to get search users going to the destination site as quickly as possible. He said that Google recognizes itself as a "middleman" and getting users to its intended site quickly is paramount if it wants to be successful.

But the only way to achieve that goal is to provide users with relevant results. Although everyone's mileage may vary depending on the type of queries they input into search engines, I've always found Google's search to be the most relevant. I have a feeling I'm not alone--Google's growth indicates its users are happy.

That said, we need to remember that another search engine could become as relevant or maybe even more relevant than Google.

That's why I don't necessarily believe relevance is the only indicator for the future success or failure of Google. I don't think there's any reason to believe another search engine can't enter the market and provide more relevant results. But I wonder if any other search engine can capitalize on other areas where Google has a stranglehold.

The marriage of advertising and search

Google's tallest barrier to entry in the search engine market is its advertising platform, which is the world's largest. By expanding its search, it's able to create a more enticing advertising platform through AdWords, AdSense, and its embeddable Google Search box.

AdSense, which employs Google search technology to improve conversion rates, had over 1 billion ad server calls during 2008, according to content-tracking company Attributor. It was second only to DoubleClick, an advertising company Google acquired in 2007 for $3.1 billion.

AdWords, Google's advertising platform for publishers, also lends to its success. Since Google's search is such a dominant player in the market, site owners and publishers employ AdWords to market their sites. It works: Google's 2007 revenue from AdWords tallied $16.4 billion. And since it too is tied to Google's search results, everyone has a vested interest in making sure Google's search stays on top.

Simply put, Google's search expansion makes its advertising business more lucrative for all parties involved. And as its advertising platform expands, it feeds into its search. That mutually beneficial relationship between advertising and search continues to sustain Google. Other search engines in the market don't have that luxury.


Google has had some trouble extending its brand with services like Froogle and Google Notebook, but its entire set of popular offerings, headlined by Google Maps and Image Search, ensure users keep coming back to Google's pages. And if they're spending time there, they'll find fewer reasons to use Yahoo, Live, or any other search engine to perform queries. Especially since Google's search, at least in my testing, is the most relevant of the bunch.

That's a problem for competing search engines. Typically, smaller search engines only have the funding to improve search and try to capture more market share in that space. But since a key success factor in the market is providing more than just search, smaller firms are at a severe disadvantage.


Google's search is pervasive. It's found on millions of Web sites that employ site search. If you use Firefox, you'll notice that Google is the default search engine in the box to the right of the address bar. If you have an iPhone or an Android G1, you'll find that Google Search is built into those devices too.

Sure, users can switch from Google to Yahoo in Firefox and no one is making them use Google search on the iPhone, but how many really take the time to switch? There are times when I don't even think about the search engine I'm using and input a few queries into Firefox. Each time, I'm redirected to a Google search results page because I've never changed it from the default. And as Firefox and the iPhone continue to gain in popularity, the number of people using Google's search will continue to grow with them.

Because of that, it's getting more difficult for competitors to get their search engine into prominent products like Firefox and the iPhone--a key success factor in the search business. Regardless, it's a necessary step if a company wants to beat Google.

Entering the public consciousness

One of the toughest battles a competitor will need to wage is removing Google from the public consciousness. The average person who doesn't follow search engines or has little knowledge about the Web, usually doesn't say, "I need to surf to my favorite search engine and find out about President Obama's economic policy."

It may sound simplistic, but I've found that many people use the term, "Google it" to describe their intention to search for something on the Web. Google has become a verb. The "search engine market" doesn't exist in many households. It's just "Google." That's the ultimate goal in branding. And the ultimate nightmare for that company's competitors.

Cash and size

Google, with over $8 billion in cash and no debt in its financial structure, has more than enough capital to invest in two key areas: product development and acquisitions. The only other company that can compete financially on the same level with Google is Microsoft, which currently has over $9 billion and no debt in its own financial structure.

Size doesn't necessarily mean much if we are to consider the staying power of a company. At any time, they can lose market share and falter. Just look at Yahoo for proof of that. But that doesn't mean size shouldn't come into the equation either. Google can very easily acquire any company that it feels is gaining too much ground in the space or it could use its size and power in the industry to ensure a respective competitor won't enter into strategic partnerships with third parties.

Being able to stymie Microsoft's or Yahoo's partnerships would be difficult, given the power of those two companies. But if a new entrant tries to make its way to the top of the search market, battling Google's cash and size will certainly be difficult, if not impossible.

Can Google be conquered? To say no would be foolish: Google itself vanquished AltaVista and Yahoo when the odds were against it. But today's search engine market is bigger and more complex. Vanquishing Google is becoming more difficult with each passing day.

Related: Google: Healthy and Undervalued