For over two decades, Google has dominated the search engine market – holding over 91% of the market share as of 2022. Its ability to analyze and understand user intent has allowed it to deliver the best possible results and refine the user experience, resulting in an expansion of the search landscape and serving as a model to almost all search engines and advertising platforms. While Google is actively making advancements to its search platform (source), the future of search at the top is no longer guaranteed as threats from other search engines, government pressure to suppress its ‘monopolistic power’, and emerging technologies are becoming stronger and more prevalent than ever before. In this piece, we explore the key players competing for search dominance, known threats, and our prediction of where search is going/who may come out ahead.
Before Google Was Google
Online search engines have been around since the early days of the internet, with the first primitive search engines appearing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These early search engines relied on simple algorithms to index web pages and return search results based on keyword matching. In the late 1990s, search engines such as AltaVista and Yahoo started gaining popularity, offering more advanced search capabilities such as the ability to search for images and news articles. While online users could gather answers to queries in an unprecedented way, the search experience still left considerable room for growth. Then in 1998, Google took the search landscape by storm and quickly became the dominant search engine due to its innovative PageRank algorithm, which ranked search results based on the importance and relevance of web pages.
As a company committed to innovation and a product experience far outpacing competitors at the time, Google was able to gain a significant head start over the marketplace – which allowed it to build a large user base and establish itself as the go-to search engine for many users. In addition to these factors, Google’s success was also driven by its business model. The company’s primary source of revenue was advertising, which allowed it to offer its search services for free to users. This helped to further cement Google’s position as the dominant search engine, as users had little reason to switch to other search engines that were unable to offer the same level of relevance and accuracy in search results.
For over two decades, Google’s reign at the top of search has seemed impenetrable and during this period of dominance, nearly all media coverage and experts in the industry have downplayed and dismissed competitive threats – until recently.
Behavioral Shifts and The Competition For Search Demand
While Google has clearly achieved acclaim as the search leader, many tech companies have been taking market share (in their own way) for the better part of the last ten years – having developed compelling propositions for addressing consumer search needs.
Amazon for instance has emerged as a major player in the search space, particularly when it comes to product searches. With millions of products available on its platform, Amazon has invested in its own search technology to ensure that customers can easily find what they’re looking for. By investing in easy-to-navigate shopping experiences related to search queries, this has put pressure on traditional search engines like Google and Bing to up their game when it comes to product search. While Amazon is not considered a search engine, its products are very much competing with Google and stand as significant threats long-term.
Apple has generally taken a more coordinated approach with Google. Apple’s web browser Safari defaults to Google as the primary search engine (though other options such as DuckDuckGo, Yahoo, Bing, etc are available). In theory, Apple could invest in a more competitive online search platform to Google and roll it out across all Apple devices with success given its strong brand affinity – similar to its smaller scale endeavor with Apple Maps. Thus far, however, Apple seems to be focused on strengthening search capabilities through technologies such as Siri versus text-based search. Despite the symbiotic relationship, Apple and Google continue to go toe-to-toe in various markets including smartphones and its not unreasonable to envision a world where Apple’s business strategy places increasing pressure on Google’s search dominance.
Yahoo has of course been around since the early years of online search; however, its search product has remained largely unchanged while its corporate structure has transformed considerably – having gone through multiple ownership changes including being acquired by Verizon in 2017 and merging with AOL to form Oath, which later rebranded as Verizon Media. Consequently, Yahoo’s search market share has declined as Google continues to dominate the space. With limited known new technologies or releases on the horizon, it is hard to look at Yahoo as a significant threat to Google or serious search platforms for the coming decade.
DuckDuckGo, on the other hand, has experienced steady growth in recent years as more users have become concerned with online privacy. DuckDuckGo positions itself as a privacy-focused alternative to Google, with features like private search, tracker blocking, and a strict no-logging policy. While still a small player in the search market, DuckDuckGo’s market share has been steadily increasing as users seek out more private and secure search options.
Microsoft’s role in online search is an interesting one. Microsoft’s Bing platform has largely trailed behind peers when it comes to online search and has rarely been considered an existential threat to Google. In recent years, however, Bing has made significant advancements in artificial intelligence through its partnership with Microsoft Research, which has allowed it to improve its search algorithms and deliver more accurate and relevant search results. Bing has also been able to leverage Microsoft’s expertise in natural language processing and machine learning to develop more sophisticated AI-based features, such as voice search and visual search.
Additionally, Bing has been able to differentiate itself from Google by providing a more personalized and localized search experience. Bing’s “Local Carousel” feature, for example, allows users to quickly find local businesses and services based on their current location, while its “Smart Answers” feature provides quick and accurate answers to common questions without requiring users to click through to external websites.
In Q4 2022, Microsoft monopolized public attention with the roll-out of Chat GPT, a language model developed by OpenAI, has also been making waves in the search market by providing more conversational and natural language search capabilities. Chat GPT has the potential to revolutionize the way people search for and consume information online. OpenAI’s GPT-3 language model, which powers Chat GPT, has been lauded for its ability to generate coherent and realistic human-like responses to a wide range of prompts and queries. This technology has the potential to greatly improve search engine capabilities and deliver more personalized and relevant results to users. As these technologies continue to evolve, we can expect search engines to become even more integrated into our daily lives, providing more seamless and intuitive experiences.
With online search being a central part of modern day society, it should come as no surprise the significant competition amongst tech players to capture demand. All of these companies understand the power of search and value of the underlying consumer data. And while Google’s search market share by nearly every metric is indicative of a monopolistic power, it somehow seems genuinely more vulnerable to competing products and services than ever before.
Existential Threats to Google’s Dominance
We are not yet predicting the fall of rome but there are several notable risks which Google must navigate in order to remain the dominant search player.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
One of the biggest threats to Google’s dominance is clearly the lack of more advanced functional artificial intelligence. While Google appears to have been largely caught by surprise with ChapGPT’s momentum, it recently announced plans to significantly alter its search platform – aiming to make it more ‘personalized’ and catered to the modern search user (source). Google is planning to prioritize answering queries that can’t be easily answered by traditional web results and will emphasize integrating online forum posts, short videos, and other user-generated content in its search results. The company is also testing new features such as allowing users to ask follow-up questions to their original queries and incorporating AI and visual features, but it will need to refine its definition of “trusted” content and provide attribution and literacy tools to enable confidence in making use of the content.
Third Party Cookies
The demise of third-party cookies is another challenge for online advertisers and specifically Google. Google is having a hard time finding a solution to fully depreciate cookies, and advertisers will likely suffer from decreases in performance, relying on algorithms and first-party data for targeting strategies. Google will try to maximize the use of GA4 capabilities to help track and leverage their owned properties like YouTube to increase audience targeting & consumer tracking but it’s extremely uncertain how this will impact the digital ad ecosystem and Google’s primary source of revenue.
As a result, Google and other advertising companies are exploring new ways to target users with ads and measure their effectiveness. Google is working on developing a new advertising system that uses machine learning to target ads without relying on third-party cookies, but this system is still in the early stages of development and may not be as effective as the previous system. The changes to third-party cookies have also led to increased concerns about user privacy, which could lead to further restrictions on data collection and usage.
Google = Search?
For twenty years, ‘Google it’ has been synonymous with search. That dynamic is still real in many ways as the overwhelming majority of online search takes place through the Google search engine; however, today’s users are more inclined to search for answers via social media and are agnostic to the search engine or device. The priority for the consumer focus is simply the speed of information and perceived accuracy or relevance to a given query. The current concern for Google is that its monopolistic power doesn’t really mean anything to the end-user if a better technology exists on the market. Ultimately the consumer is only loyal to Google so long as Google satisfactorily answers its questions.
A further example of this challenge is the Rise of Vertical Search Engines: While Google is the dominant player in general search, there are many vertical search engines that focus on specific areas, such as e-commerce (Amazon) and travel (TripAdvisor). These specialized search engines can provide more focused and relevant results in their specific areas, making them more appealing to users who are looking for specific types of information. As these vertical search engines continue to grow, they could pose a threat to Google’s market share.
This is not a new phenomenon as Google has been at the crosshairs of government agencies and politicians for years now. However, the pressure to crack down on Google has certainly accelerated with Google clearly preparing for a seemingly imminent DoJ lawsuit (source). The lawsuit potential is hyper-specific with the focus on demanding the ad giant divest its Google Ad Manager (GAM) suite, including DoubleClick for Publishers (DFP) and ad exchange ADX. However, this may just be the tip of the iceberg with pressure mounting from multiple fronts.
Where Do We Go From Here
Predicting the future may be a fool’s errand but we can clearly observe changes in consumer behavior and estimate how these shifts will play out in the world of online search in the coming years. Here are a few scenarios we see as likely:
Increased focus on personalization: Search engines will become increasingly personalized to cater to individual user preferences and behavior. This means that search results will increasingly be tailored to each user’s interests, search history, and location. All search giants – especially Google and Bing will continue to invest in machine learning and AI technologies to better understand user intent and provide more relevant results.
Expansion of voice and visual search: Voice and visual search will become more advanced, with more users relying on voice assistants and image-based search to find information. Companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple remain dedicated to voice search technology and integration within their broader suite of products. They are also exploring visual search capabilities, such as Google’s Lens technology, which allows users to search using images.
Voice search will continue to grow, with consumers adopting this version of search, particularly on mobile. Advertisers will need to adopt conversational and long-tail keywords into their strategies to ensure coverage across this user behavior. Google’s search bar has evolved to support both voice and visual search, representing the future of a more detailed and visual search landscape to provide the most relevant and useful results to consumers.
Integration with other services and shift beyond text-based: The future of search will move away from a predominant text-based engine to one that supports both inputs and outputs of texts, videos, and images – and search engines will become increasingly integrated with other services such as social media and e-commerce platforms. You can already drag-and-drop images and Google continues to support social media results and signals more. Visual search has become more popular with the emergence of social platforms like TikTok, and Google’s “Google Lens” product for visual search will combine text and image searches to enhance the consumer experience.
Continued emphasis on privacy: As consumers become more concerned about online privacy and data protection, search engines are placing greater emphasis on privacy-focused features, such as encrypted search and the ability to delete search history. Companies like Google and DuckDuckGo are investing in these features to provide users with more control over their data.
In conclusion, the future of search is a war for dominance in the search engine market. While Google has dominated the market for decades, threats from other search engines and emerging technologies like visual and voice search could shift the balance of power. To stay ahead, Google needs to catch up in advanced AI, find solutions to the demise of third-party cookies, and navigate a challenging regulatory environment. Perhaps Google’s recent aim to deliver a more ‘personalized’ search experience will sufficiently address these hurdles and allow it to maintain market share – the outcomes are unclear. Regardless, the future will continue to be heavily influenced by consumer needs for a more relevant, tailored, and private search of experience.
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