Racing Against Google?

As search marketers, we spend nearly all day thinking about immediate concerns related to our jobs. We think about how to build content via keyword research, specifically, what users type and what they don’t. We think about PPC (define) strategy by noting what day of the week and what time of day users are more likely to convert.

Occasionally, it’s nice to take a moment to think about things beyond immediate needs. Search engine market share tops that list.

I always enjoy end-of-year synopsis articles and their minute-younger twins, beginning-of-the-year prediction articles. The end of 2006 brought a lot of attention to Google and how we’re entering the alleged era of lost trust. Not of Google losing trust in sites (another popular topic, to be sure), but of users losing trust in Google.

The way Google uses its tips to promote its other products, its ability to profit from “made for AdSense” scraper sites, censorship in China, and continual challenges to its ability to return relevant results are among the many issues cited that will bring ruin to its success, maybe even this year.

No Successor on the Horizon

For a market leader to be overtaken, however, several factors must be present. First, of course, is an able successor. If you say “Google is going to lose significant market share,” but can’t easily answer “to whom?” your argument gets tougher.

In terms of Google’s market share, the simple truth is if 2006 were the year the market began to lose faith in Google, someone forgot to tell the market.

In August, Search Engine Watch published then-current search engine market share and trend numbers for all 2006. Results were surprisingly static for both Google and Yahoo. No statistics since then have implied any changes will soon take place.

Noticed, But Not Widely

The second factor that must be present is a perceived loss of quality that’s measurable (anecdotally at least, if not statistically) and widely noticed.

I sometimes quiz friends and family members — people outside the small, insulated world of SEM — about their thoughts on search. What do they think about Google and China? How has the Google Tip scandal changed their searching habits? What do they predict about more complicated landing-page scoring for PPC ads? Quizzical looks are almost always the result. In the event any of them even know what I’m talking about, it makes little or no difference to them.

More often than not, dour predictions for the overthrow of industry titans have more to do with disgruntled venting than with statistical analysis. Disgruntled venting is fine, but nearly always comes from a vocal minority of industry insiders. That doesn’t nullify its point, but neither does it spell gloom for the venting’s target. Apple’s iPod and Microsoft’s Windows OS are other products for which the end is near, if you listen to the right people — those with legitimate concerns and data, most likely, but whose issues aren’t important to the vast majority of consumers.

The Racing Metaphor

People often use racing analogies to contrast themselves with the competition. Is one engine running a sprint, while others are pacing themselves for a marathon? What does an engine need to do to exceed Google’s market share? To continue with the running analogy, let’s equate pace with relevance of results. If you’re in a race and the leader is a mile ahead, simply matching her pace will never result in a victory for you. At best, you’ll always be a mile behind. Likewise, any engine that simply matches or even slightly improves on Google’s level of relevancy will likely never catch it. Given Google’s lead in the race, what’s required is doubling or even tripling Google’s relevancy before the gap in public opinion begins to close.

I have no particular favoritism nor animosity toward Google or any other search engine. On one hand, the company’s unpredictability sometimes makes it difficult to do my job. On the other, consumer obsession with the company and the benefits of receiving its traffic provide me a job. For anyone with Taoist leanings, that’s a perfect fit. And that’s as much thinking as I plan to do about it — at least in 2007.

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