With a single dominant player, the Web search market hasn’t exactly been fertile ground for startups and emerging companies with innovative new technologies. But a flurry of venture capital investment, product development, acquisitions, and other industry activity seems to mark the beginning of a new era in search, one in which specialists play a bigger role.
Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) handles 62 percent of Web search queries, followed by Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq: YHOO) and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), according to research firm Nielsen Online . Behind them is a proliferation of upstarts, promising nuanced forms of consumer-oriented Web searches, arcane new “semantic Web” and contextual search services, mobile search, and search results in other guises, such as NewsGator feeds.
The burst of activity over the past 12 months is more befitting a land rush than a market dominated by one powerhouse:
- Semantic Web search engine Hakia Inc. , founded in 2004 by a group of European scientists, debuted late last year a “social search” feature designed to connect users with people of similar interests. A $5 million investment in January brought its total to $21 million.
- In January, contextual search specialist Silobreaker Ltd. launched its new engine for relations-mapping and trend analysis on topics and people.
- A few weeks later, startup Surf Canyon released its Discovery Engine, a browser plug-in that disambiguates (i.e., reorders based on relevance) search results from the major engines in real time.
- In March, SearchMe Inc. launched its “visual search” capability and category suggestions for nontext searches. The three-year-old company landed $16 million in venture capital this year, bringing its total to $31 million from the likes of Sequoia Capital and Lehman Brothers.
- Ask.com , one of the original “plain English” search engines, said in May it will acquire Lexico, the owner of Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com.
- Search aggregator Viewzi , which presents results from top search engines in innovative and user-friendly interfaces, introduced its new tools in June.
- Search startup Cuil Inc. , created by a pair of Google veterans and purporting to index billions more Web pages than Google, launched in July.
For business users, the flourishing of new search technologies could bring relief from a growing dissatisfaction with the information overload delivered by a typical Google search. At-work surfers (assuming they’re actually working and not looking for the latest Gnarls Barkley video) “are not just exploring and experiencing things on the Web,” says Surf Canyon founder Mark Cramer. “Their objective is more specific, and they need to get it in a more timely fashion.”
The big three aren’t standing still. In July, Yahoo announced Yahoo Search Boss, a Web-services platform that will let developers create new search tools based on Yahoo APIs -- tools that could compete with Yahoo itself. About the same time, Microsoft moved to bolster its Live Search with the acquisition of Powerset, a developer of semantic search.
And Google continues to plow ahead. Interviews with Google’s search gurus show that the company is devoting a chunk of its $16.5 billion in annual revenue to improving its search tools and investing in businesses that drive users to those tools. Yet Google is spread thinner than ever: It’s promoting its operating system for mobile devices, Android; putting out a browser to compete with Internet Explorer; pushing into cloud computing; dedicating resources to enterprise search; and developing an entirely new industry around clean, renewable energy sources.
That’s a full slate even for a company with a market cap around $146 billion. Like many technology leaders before it, Google could get distracted from its core business and miss the next wave of innovation. “I think there are major opportunities being created because there’s so much broad focus on how to be a search behemoth,” says Brad Bostic, co-founder and president of mobile search provider ChaCha Search Inc. “That makes it difficult to be really great at all those niche areas.”
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