Searching matters

There's movement in the search business, and about time.

For a sector so technology driven, it's been remarkably predictable. Yahoo, the number two player, has publicly given up on trying to catch Google.

But that won't stop others from trying.

We've just seen the launch of Wolfram Alpha, a computational search engine. It's not in any sense a challenger to Google, but it does quickly crunch large amounts of geeky data.

You can compare life expectancies, New York and Singapore, any two stocks or the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. You can't compare the Beatles and the Stones, and if you ask about "Nirvana" it will tell you about a 1997 movie.

It's a cool technology, but Wolfram has an issue with its business model, i.e., it doesn't have one.

Microsoft's issue is its technology, i.e., it doesn't work anywhere near well enough.

It's spent five years chasing Google's tail. According to ComScore, Microsoft's share of US searches is 8%, close to an all-time low - remember that's with the cashback offer. Even Yahoo is 20%, while Google remains the frontrunner 64%.

The big news is that Microsoft is about to junk its Live Search brand and, presumably, technology in favor of a new brand and technology.

It will rebrand its new search engine as - Bing. It's a name that has already inspired a Twitter competition to reverse-engineer the "acronym" ("But It's Not Google", "Big Investment No Goals").

At time of writing Bing is not yet launched and the story is about the big bucks Microsoft is splashing on promoting it - as much as $80 million, according to the Advertising Age. By comparison, Google's entire ad spend last year was $25 million.

There's something ironic about spending $80 million on advertising a product whose main business will be to attract ads. But as one ex-Googler told Advertising Age, Microsoft's problem is search ain't broke. Punters are pretty happy with the search they're getting.

Google's internal tests show that its brand is an important part of its success; when it puts its own brand on another search engine, users prefer that.

So even if Bing has a mind-blowing new feature, Microsoft will still have to get over the problem that everyone thinks Google is better anyway.

If there's a threat to Google, it's from real-time search.

Google has the static web archived and indexed. But not the conversational streams that take place on Facebook or this year's internet sensation, Twitter.

Their content matters. Maybe not so much at the individual stream level, but in the aggregate they are enormously telling.

What if your CEO or marketing VP knew what was being said about your company or product as it was being said? What if a mobile operator could pick up on everything that was said about its new application in the past 24 hours? What if a politician or government knew in real-time how people were reacting to an issue?

These arise out of the very powerful tool that is called "discovery" - which is very different from "search".

"Search" is what you do for stuff you know is there. That's what Google is brilliant at - archiving and indexing web content.

"Discovery" is accidental, or when you're not sure what you're looking for; like finding out that you're just two degrees separated from a new friend. It's intrinsically social.

To those in the search game the difference is critical. Discovery is what real-time search is all about, and where Facebook and in particular Twitter have it all over the G-men.

Google co-founder Larry Page admitted so at a recent conference, and CEO Eric Schmidt has hinted that Google might partner with Twitter.

Google may or may not catch up. But the buzz around the real-time search is just one more sign that, more and more, the social web is driving the future of the net.