Does the World Need Another Way to Search?

Google’s dominance in online search hasn’t stopped hundreds of startups from trying to build a better mousetrap. Each is trying a new twist on search: geography, crowdsourcing, tags, user annotations, learned hierarchies and timelines. With $20 billion spent on online advertising every year, a killer search application can make a lot of money.

But will new types of search catch on? A recent study of the Google Generation, conducted by University College London, found that “users make very little use of advanced search facilities, assuming that search engines ‘understand’ their queries.” Many of today’s Internet users still don’t know how to use a search engine, preferring instead to type a domain name into the search box (which is why Yahoo is a top search on Google and vice-versa.) The reverse, known as type-in traffic, involves typing a search topic into the address bar to find results. [digg=]

So why are there so many new search sites springing up on the Internet?

Building a better mousetrap

There are two main reasons companies want to reinvent search. First, new approaches can deliver better results.

  • Some search tools use additional context — such as location, tags or the wisdom of crowds — to find more relevant information. Circos, for example, provides clusters of themes so users can tailor their results easily.
  • Some search for new kinds of things, most notably people. Redux helps people find people, and Delver and Streakr tie search results to friends’ relationships. Even e-commerce is changing, with sites like Wize and buzzillions combining search with opinion rankings to recommend purchases.
  • Others present the information on a map (like Atlaspost), a timeline (the way Capzles does for photos,) or a dynamic hierarchy (like iLeonardo) to make it easier to understand.

Second, new search is worth more money.

According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, pay-for-performance advertising overtook impression-based advertising in 2007. Advertisers don’t want to pay for eyeballs anymore; instead, they want results.

Combining ads with search results makes them relevant, encouraging visitors to click on them. The more relevant the results, goes the theory, the more you can charge an advertiser. So the new crop of search tools can command greater revenue for targeted ads.

And if those searches have a social element, they’re even more influential. Word-of-mouth marketing is the basis for most viral marketing campaigns. Peer recommendations cut through our natural spam filters, making us more likely to consider an offer. So social sites don’t just offer more targeted ads — the ads are more likely to be acted upon.

A crowded space

Despite the potential upside, new entrants face significant challenges. Consider recently launched European social search site 123people, started by serial entrepreneur Markus Wagner and backed by incubator i5invest. The company aggregates contact information from a wide range of online sources, including Facebook, Hi5, Xing, YouTube, and studiVZ.

Even this can be dangerous. Harvesting data from other sites is common practice online, but some social sites are claiming this is a violation of their terms of use. In a recent, well-publicized example, networking site LinkedIn stopped job site from importing contact and job information.

Fortunately, 123people isn’t just about aggregating social content. The portal also pulls in media, tags and comments from a wide range of sites, and crawls country-specific sources. It then lets users claim, vote and tag profile data.

The site is generating significant attention, with over 100,000 unique visitors in the first 72 hours and over 1,000 searches a minute. That’s great traffic, but people search is already a crowded space. 123people faces a large number of competitors like Spock, Wink and Zoominfo. And with good reason: Social search is a hot sector of the online industry.

Social search gives the big sites an advantage

“I think one way [search] will be better is in understanding more about you and understanding more about your social context: Who your friends are, what you like to do, where you are,” Google VP Marissa Mayer told VentureBeat in a recent interview. “It’s hard to imagine that the search engine 10 years from now isn’t advised by those things.”

With all of this innovation, Google certainly isn’t waiting for someone else to reinvent search. It’s armed with millions of search results a day, a huge amount of computing power, and a promising social model that crawls the Net to discover social relationships.

Google and other Internet giants like Facebook have a big advantage. Future search will depend heavily on what the engine knows about you: Where you live, what your friends like, and what you’ve found useful in the past. It’s unlikely that the average consumer will invest time and effort in building redundant online personas across several search engines in order to improve results.

If we’re going to tell the Internet about ourselves, we’re likely to do it on one of the big sites. They’ll be the ones who can use what they know about us in the ways that are most useful.

If the flurry of search startups can tie into the social graph of Google, Facebook and others without biting the hands that feed them, then they have a chance of succeeding. But if they’re betting their business on changing the way people search, they have a lot of work ahead of them.