Having just listened to Mike’s podcast on social software (highly recommended!), I’ve serendipitously come across two articles on “social search” that may lead me to rethink my views on the search engine market.  I’ve long been a skeptic of the possibility that Google has any potent competitors (at least in the US) on the horizon.  The recent failure of the Quaero project in Europe hardened those views.  But it appears that some products that re-introduce the “human touch” to search may change that market. First, there’s Naver in S. Korea.  According to today’s NYT,

Web users in one of the world’s most-wired countries seldom google anything. They “Naver” it.  Tapping a South Korean inclination to help one another on the Web has made Naver.com the undisputed leader of Internet search in the country. It handles more than 77 percent of all Web searches originating in South Korea, thanks largely to content generated by people like Ms. Park and Mr. Cho, free of charge.

The key to the company’s success was creating (and getting others to create) S. Korean content to index.  As a result, “Google, the top search engine in the world, barely registers in the country’s online consciousness, handling just 1.7 percent of South Korean Web searches.”  It will be interesting to see if Baidu in China follows a similar strategy.

Can anyone rival Google in the countries it’s now successful in?  According to one business columnist, there’s a big incentive to: “Google’s net profit margin last year was 29 percent” and “1% of search market share is worth over $1 Billion.”  Stross believes that there’s good reason to try for that share:

Any company that offers a superior search service would be able to poach the customers of everyone else. No long-term contracts keep Google users in place. In addition, even though each search engine conducts a search in its own way, users do the same thing — typing in a word or a phrase — no matter which service they are using. Therefore, no daunting learning curve will frighten customers who are considering moving to another search engine. 

 A co-author and I give several reasons to believe that things aren’t quite so rosy (that paper will be up on SSRN soon).  But I appreciated Stross’s overview of how the competitive dynamics may unfold:

Engines like Hakia, Accoona and Powerset are trying to grab market share by writing a more sophisticated algorithm. A growing number of entrepreneurs are placing their bets, however, on a hybrid system that puts humans back into the search equation. They are grouped under a newly coined rubric, ”social search,” and it is becoming a crowded field.  Newcomers like Squidoo, Sproose and NosyJoe offer search results based on submissions or votes by users.

Stross is really high on Mahalo, which claims to have venture funding for 5 years and “has pre-prepared pages for 5,000 terms related to entertainment, travel, health, technology and other subject areas.”  Mahalo has a process that makes it a bit more like a regular media outlet than the algorithm-driven Google:

[A]t Google the machine has the final say. Once the query is fed into the ”engine,” the results are presented without manual adjustment. At Mahalo and other ”human powered” sites, the machine performs a first cut at the search in advance of a user’s request, and the results are then winnowed and shaped by human editors, then stored, a process that Mr. Calacanis terms ”editorialized search.”

One question: could Google condition its service on the requirement that it not be used by competitors?  I imagine that Mahalo in large part relies on Google’s and other search engine results to compile its own results.  If it starts taking market share away from Google, I’d imagine Google might claim some copyright in search results as a type of “arrangement” or “compilation.”  But if its image search is “transformative” enough to be a fair use, I’d imagine so too would Mahalo’s rearrangement of any reults it found on Google. 

2 Thoughts to “Social Search”

  1. Frank, your last question is an excellent one. I’d push it even further: if a search engine is simply manipulating the results feed from Google, are they creating any sustainable value? Simple front-end plays like this don’t interest me, since Google can easily copy them. The only search engines that are doing something truly interesting are those that manipulate the core data being searched. Companies like Powerset and Kosmix are changing the index; whereas companies like Mahalo are generating new data from users.

  2. re: “I imagine that Mahalo in large part relies on Google’s and other search engine results to compile its own results.”

    Not true. When a guide is writing their 100th search result page for something like travel, health, or products they know the best sites on the web for the vertical. They really are not going to get much from Google when doing their 101st travel SeRP–in fact, the best/most unique stuff is not going to be found on Google. The best stuff we’re finding is buried deep in social news, bookmarking, and personal blogs. The obvious stuff is in Google’s top 20 list… the nuggets of goodness are found on the 12th stumbleupon page, or a combination of delicious tags, or someone’s myspace page.

    I’d say Google/Yahoo/Ask search is used

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