Search: Bah Humbug?

As a corporate in-house search marketer, I hate this time of year. Outside the grand, official corporate Christmas party (and unofficial departmental holiday gatherings at the corner pub), November 26 to January 3 is a near dead zone of SEM (define) activity.

Phone calls aren’t returned in a timely manner. Autoresponders flood the average email inbox with notices of who’s out of the office until when. Nothing gets approved because the people who need to rubber stamp next year’s projects won’t be in the office until next year. It’s the most dreadful time of year for a corporate search marketer. If I could take 26 days off, I would.

There’s not much to do but sit back and watch PPC (define) strategies in motion and compare this year’s e-commerce sales to last year’s on a search-referral-by-search-referral basis. To be certain, holiday sales are bursting bandwidth, and secure servers are nearing overload. But where SEM is concerned, not much seems to get done.

This time of the year, life in a corporate cube farm would be stifling were it not for the annual Search Engine Strategies (SES) gathering in Chicago. As search conferences go, SES Chicago is probably not the biggest nor the most widely attended. It is, however, a timely respite for bored marketers to gather and prognosticate about the search’s future.

Search Flashbacks

To figure out where search is going, we need a little retrospect. When I got into the business, Lycos, AltaVista, Magellan, WebCrawler, HotBot, and Infoseek were hot search properties.

In 1994, Lycos introduced truly advanced search technology in the form of relevance retrieval, prefix matching, and word proximity. By 1996, Lycos was the largest search engine in the world, indexing over 60 million documents.

Ten years later, the Lycos landmark index is less than 0.06 percent of Google’s and Yahoo’s index claims. Blogs are booming and multimedia technology is advancing, with video and podcast search collections looming. It’s relatively safe to say 10 years from now, indexing 8-10 billion Web objects will be equally laughable.

Magellan and AltaVista went online in 1995. Lycos acquired HotBot in 1998. Magellan ceased operations in 2001. In 2003, Yahoo purchased Overture, which also owned AltaVista and AlltheWeb (launched in 1999). AOL bought WebCrawler in 1995, Excite bought it in 1996, and AskJeeves bought Excite in 2004. Today, is a permanent redirect to, and AltaVista lives on as the first search engine that processed natural language search queries and introduced advanced searching techniques.

These engines once provided phenomenal technological advances in search yet failed to monetize their algorithms into a sustainable business platform. Consequently, search engine consolidation went full throttle. Who knows where semi-cloistered AOL users and AOL search will end up next year?

With Yahoo’s merger and acquisition history, safe bets might be on the brainchild of Jerry Yang and David Filo to acquire AOL. But you can never count MSN out of the picture. We can, however, expect to see the search market further consolidated in the near term. We’ll witness change in search technology ownership, but we’re not going to see dramatic search technology changes in the near future, outside of a few algorithmic shifts, of course.

In 1996, Larry Page and Sergey Brin began collaboration on a search engine called BackRub, named for its unique ability to analyze the links pointing back to a particular Web site. Google officially launched in 1997 and was incorporated in 1998. Yet not until 2001 would Google tap into mainstream search. Google has had no problem monetizing search.

Is the next Google nestled somewhere in a research project at some university right now? Perhaps, but it took nearly 20 years to get from the launch of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) to the launch of Google. The next big technological paradigm search shift may not happen until 2017.

Search Fast-Forward

Will 2006 be the year local search finally hits mainstream? It depends on several key factors. Broadband must hit the street. If cell-phone carriers continue to spawn broadband connections to mobile phones, the mix of Internet access, mobile gadgetry, and locality will converge.

If search marketers can prove a business case for local search PPC, pay-per-call, or pay-per-action, the race will be on for businesses of all sizes everywhere to get into mobile Web browsers via search. All PPC formats will continue to grow.

Vertical engines will continue to gain searchers. But shopping comparison sites will likely be a large part of search consolidation in the near future. After all, shoppers are the most likely buyers, and buyers are the heart of search monetization.

There probably won’t be any greater advances in search technologies next year, but how search is used will continue to advance at a blistering pace, as with classified ad searches. That’s enough to keep even bored in-house search marketers busy for 2006 — and beyond.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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