More Than a Search Engine

It was analyst day at Yahoo last week, a time when the company trots out figures and other material to talk about how it’s doing as a company.’s George Mannes has a nice write-up of things that came out of analyst day. I was struck by a quote from Yahoo CMO Cammie Dunaway. Yahoo, she said, is “much more than a search engine.”

Wow. How the circle turns. After all the recent attention on search, and the improvement in search quality that’s come with it, can it be major search players are about to make the same portal mistakes they made in the late ’90s?

Those mistakes, a desire to be “more than a search engine,” is what allowed “pure search” Google to blossom. The difference is, this time Google itself may be making those mistakes.

The Good Old Portal Times

Dunaway’s statement is striking because it flashes back to around 1998, when all the major portals were almost embarrassed to be called search engines. You constantly heard them say they were more than a search engine or that search was just one of many things they did.

As I explained in a 2001 column, this attitude was somewhat understandable. Search was a loss-leader. Portal features and advertising kept these companies alive. As Infoseek founder Steve Kirsch recently recalled, being a portal was “the thing to do at the time.”

Nevertheless, this inattention to search also caused the search engines, ahem, portals, to take their eyes off the search ball. Into that space came Google. Its founders previously said they had no real interest in joining with any of the established portals. It was clear those companies weren’t focused on search.

The result are well known. Google quickly grew in popularity, to the point where for some it’s synonymous with search. In the meantime, paid listings, pioneered by Overture, then adopted by Google, meant search could earn big money. Suddenly, we were plunged into a new search engine war. Yahoo and Microsoft — two winners of the portal wars — wanted to take on Google.

Portal Wars Redux?

Google has fought back, most dramatically on the portal front. Last week, it rolled out a new Google Groups mailing list service to rival Yahoo’s long-established one. Google says there are good search reasons for this. I disagree.

Gmail, of course, gives Google a giant portal feature. There’s much more of a match between Gmail and Google’s search mission. Nevertheless, there have been search negatives from Google’s move into this portal territory.

Since the Gmail announcement, Google has been embroiled in email privacy issues. That must sap time and energy away from other things, such as search. Meanwhile, Yahoo said at its analyst day it plans to increase the storage it offers users of its own free email service. That will pull time and money away from search, too. As more battles erupt over portal feature, search may suffer even more.

Google, of course, is more than a search engine. In addition to portal features, it’s a major media company. Anyone who has failed to see this picture can’t miss it now, as Google just announced it will distribute graphical ads on Web sites.

Putting pictures on Web sites has to do with search… how? But then, putting textual ads on Web sites didn’t have anything to do with search either.

I’ll examine this further in a future piece. Until then, suffice to say both search and contextual advertising may be great for advertisers, but they’re different and should be treated as such. Mixing contextual and search ad revenues together in one big “paid search” pile, as many analysts and others do, will result in misleading conclusions about the state of the search industry.

Becoming a media player did make great sense for Google. It was a natural move to leverage its large advertising base. But placing ads on sites across the Web has nothing — absolutely nothing — to do with organizing information, as I wrote back when Google launched AdSense.

Juggling More May Mean Less

“More than a search engine.” It’s almost unbelievable to hear those words spoken, especially from Yahoo. Over the past year, the company has desperately tried to resurrect its search engine image. I’ve yet to hear Google utter those words, but its actions speak them loudly.

I’ve generally thought it unlikely we’ll get a “new” Google in the near future. It didn’t seem the major players (Google included) would make those old portal mistakes again and neglect search. But events of the past weeks make me wonder anew.

Maybe the established companies will be able to juggle all those balls in the air: portal features, search, media sales, without dropping any. Perhaps the circle will turn again, and a new Google really will emerge.

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