Google: Seven potential threats to its dominance
Google won the search engine war, says Juliette Garside, but the battle has been taken on by specialist engines with defined tasks and cutting-edge technology
AltaVista, Magellan, Infoseek…the web is littered with the corpses of search engines that were crushed during Google’s rise to the top. Some like AltaVista, which now belongs to Yahoo!, have been taken over by larger entities. Many were simply closed down.
The internet’s best brains are still trying to come up with alternatives.
Wikipedia lists over 200 engines that search the open web, and dozens of others that restrict themselves to combing through limited groups of sites.
Yahoo! tried to invent a Google-killer, but has now thrown in the towel, harnessing itself to Google’s more popular search business.
Microsoft is still trying, but for how much longer?
Beneath the headlines, the battle has shifted to a new terrain. The prize now is to devise engines that can handle clearly defined tasks -such as finding video, or MP3 music files, or the best blogs - more effectively.
Others use a different technology to Google, letting surfers navigate by clicking on pictures rather than typing in search words. Some are hoping to marshal armies of human volunteers to label information in ways that make the results more relevant.
One of the leading European media and technology venture capital investors, Balderton Capital, is looking to put money into some of these alternative search engines.
Dharmash Mistry, Balderton partner and former head of digital operations at magazine publisher Emap, believes that as we become more experienced users of the internet, we become more demanding. There are needs that are not being met by the general search engines which might be better taken care of by niche players.
Says Mistry: “Different consumer problems will be solved better by lots of players, as opposed to a single player solving all sorts of consumer problems.”
Here we highlight seven alternatives to Google.
Launched in May, London-based Pixsta describes itself as a visual search engine. It helps the user find what they want by clicking on images as well as typing in words. The technology is being used for a shopping site, which functions in the UK, France and America, but other applications are in development ranging from facial similarity for dating to travel destination research. Pixsta has links to over 120 retailers, and is hosted on a number of consumer websites including handbag.com, Elle UK and indeed Telegraph.co.uk.
Most search engines, like Google Images, rely on the text captions attached to pictures to bring back the correct results. Pixsta analyses images pixel by pixel, to calculate shape, colour, texture and pattern. To find a match, it will select other images with a certain number of identical features. If you type patent leather red shoes, stiletto heel, into the search box, the software matches your query to its visual signatures and shows a series of related image results. By clicking on one you quite like, it will show you others that are yet more similar, until you find the one you prefer. Each picture is linked to an online retailer, so that the item can be purchased.
Pixsta is backed by Eden Ventures and private investors, and its co-founders are Dr Daniel Heesch, a German graduate of the London School of Economics, and dotcom entrepreneur Alexander Straub.
Hothoused by the UK’s most successful search business, Autonomy Corporation, and now valued at £55m on the London Stock Exchange, blinkx is a video search engine.
Conceived at Cambridge University by Suranga Chandratillake and a team of fellow programmers, and developed with $150m of research funding over 12 years, it launched to the public in 2005 and claims to be the largest single source of video on the web, with 26m hours indexed so far.
Like Pixsta, it is not dependent on the text tags applied to video by machines or humans. Its crawlers - the computer programmes that roam the web, indexing pages for search engines - can also listen to what is being said on a video using speech recognition technology. They can recognise over 500 famous faces.
Most importantly, they can “watch” videos to look out for text and detect scene changes. This means that in its summary of search results, blinkx can show a snippet of the footage of Comply Or Die winning this year’s Grand National, rather than the talking head in the television studio announcing the news. The user knows immediately whether they’ve found the right video.
blinkx claims that this technology makes its results more relevant than Yahoo! and AOL’s Truveo, which rely on the written labels that surround videos loaded onto a web page. advertisement
blinkx already powers video search for three of the top five search engines, including Ask.com, MSN and parts of the AOL portal. According to measurement firm Hitwise, blinkx has now surpassed Google Video in the UK with weekly market share of visits.
Unlike Google, this is not a public search engine. You cannot go to Endeca.com and type a query into a box. Instead, Endeca provides its technology to multinationals or government organisations so that they can search their own massive internal databases. Boeing, ABN Amro and the US Defense Intelligence Agency are among its clients.
Its other big line of business is helping public websites make their contents more accessible to customers. Tesco.com, US retailer Walmart and Borders bookstore are all clients. Emap, the magazine publisher, has an Endeca search on Motorcyclenews.com and Todaysgolfer.co.uk.
The technology is known as faceted search. Queries are typed into not one box but five or six, to both include and exclude keywords or sources.
Type ‘pink Yahama’ into Motorcyclenews and the results are categorised by subheadings including news, sport, bikes for sale and community. The search can then be refined by make, model, or price. If you decide to look for another brand of bike, the term Yahama can be removed and every pink bike on the site appears.
Unlike Google, Endeca does not rely on advertising, but charges between $100,000 and $10m per installation.
Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the company is still privately owned but widely tipped as one of the next multi-million dollar new media stock market listings. It competes with Autonomy, valued on the London Stock Exchange at £1.9bn, and Fast Search & Transfer, bought at the beginning of this year by Microsoft for $1.2bn.
Technorati tracks nearly 113m blogs and over 150m videos, photos and other odds and ends like online votes. It categorises its findings into business, entertainment, lifestyle, politics and sports, but its strength is in monitoring information and opinion about technology.
According to Technorati’s data, there are over 175,000 new blogs every day. Its raison d’etre is to make these easily accessible and rank them in order of importance. Bloggers often link to each others’ pages, and those with the most links are deemed by Technorati to be amongst the most authoritative.
The brainchild of Jimmy Wales, co-founder of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, Wikia Search can be edited by registered users. The hope is that human brains can improve the quality of computer-generated information. “If someone runs a search and doesn’t find the result they’re looking for, we’re giving them the power to go and fix it,” explained Mr Wales. Users can edit results, titles and summaries, add notes, highlight the most relevant results, delete non-sequiturs. As of this month, it has attracted 25,000 volunteers who have made almost 60,000 edits.
A music search engine. There are many shades of grey in music search, from free download sites to those like Songza which guides users to paid-for music. Type in a song and it offers various options, from listen now to buy on Amazon.com or embedding it on your homepage.
Looking for a 2000 Lafite Rothschild or an obscure estate wine? Ablegrape.com, the wine search engine, will supply you with a list of importers who claim to have it in stock. It can also classify results by tasting notes and producer. Very much part of the long tail of niche search engines, it links to 36,000 other wine sites.