Search Engines Ready for Battle, but Where's the War?

The search wars are heating up again, as the three major search engines -- Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft -- are launching new features. At its recent Searchology event, Google released some new tools to help you refine your query and get at the information you want. Yahoo on Tuesday unveiled a new search philosophy designed to zero in on your intent and present you with information directly relevant to your query. Microsoft is also gearing up its search mojo with Kumo, and, if the rumors and leaks are correct, Kumo will debut very soon featuring related search categories that are relevant to your query.

While all three companies are presenting somewhat different ways to search, they are all going after the same thing: semantic search, or the capability for a computer to understand what you're looking for based on your query and not just return a list of results based on keywords. No one has done it yet, but search companies are closer than before.

But could semantic search really be a game changer?

Talk of semantic search and new methods to get around the so-called "10 Blue Links" -- the laundry list of URLs you get when entering a query in almost every single search engine since AltaVista -- may sound exciting, but the truth is there's really no contest in search anymore. According to the latest numbers from the metrics firm ComScore, Google rules the U.S. search world with 64.2 percent of the market, Yahoo comes in second with 20.4 percent, and Microsoft rounds out the top three with a paltry 8.2 percent. So while we still consider Yahoo and Microsoft major players in the search market, comparing them to Google is like putting a multi-national corporation, a midsized company, and a Ma and Pa shop in the same category.

But that begs another question: What does Google have that the others haven't? It isn't search results. For example, take a simple term like Palm Pre and look at the results from the three search engines. All three delivered top results that direct you to pages at Palm.com, they all listed Wikipedia on the first page of results and the rest of the first page was filled out with differing Palm Pre blogs, news, and reviews. A search for the New York Yankees was slightly different with Google and Live Search results being very close, and Yahoo varying a little by concentrating on New York City area sites. But again, the results on the first page were relatively close for all three search engines.

What's so great about Google?

So if you can get almost the same information on any of the three major search engines, why stick to Google at all? For that matter, why not go with Ask.com or AOL, the other two engines in the top five? Google has a reputation for simplicity, but Live Search's interface is just as basic as Google's. The big three all have key features like e-mail and instant messaging, they all have news pages and they all have video and image searches. But despite these similarities Google is always at the top of the search pack by a huge margin.

If all search engines are pretty close in terms of results and key services, then maybe it's not about new features or better search results at all; maybe search preference is simply a matter of what you're used to. My homepage has been Google for almost ten years, and I haven't looked back since. Google hasn't changed too drastically in that time, and I like it because it gets me where I want to go on the Web. Now that I've also integrated a large portion of my online activities into other Google services like Gmail, Google Reader, and Google Docs, I'm basically locked into Google as my destination of choice. It's not necessarily better than its competitors, it just has everything I need and I'm used to it. If you talked to Yahoo or Live Search users I suspect you'd get a similar answer.

So if that's the case, and search popularity is more about habit than trying out new features, what kind of radical change would be needed to pull people away from Google and onto another search platform? And could Microsoft or Yahoo be innovative enough to pull it off?

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