Depending on your age and how early you adopted the internet, it’s possible that every online search you’ve ever done was a Google search. In fact, before you did that search, you probably said something like “one sec, let me google it.” This year, as Google celebrates its 21st birthday, it represents 9.2 of every 10 online searches worldwide. At the same time, calls to break up the “Google monopoly” have gained traction in virtually every U.S. state. It begs the question, if something is actually done to break up the conglomerate (Google’s parent company known as Alphabet, Inc.), where will the competition come from? For brands and marketers, are there any viable alternatives for those digital search dollars? Today, we’ll get into the details.
B.G. (Before Google)
For those of you who can instantly recall every note in the dial-up modem sequence, you probably remember a time when the internet was a little less… organized. It was the early 1990s, the Dot Com Boom was a mere lit fuse, and the first wave of search engines fought each other for dominance. Google wouldn’t be created for several years yet. The players then were AOL, Excite, Yahoo!, AltaVista, Webcrawler, Ask Jeeves, Infoseek and Lycos, to name a few.
The differences in early search engines could be profound, but in general, these differences were not well understood by users. Each one added features and helped create new expectations among users, like the ability to search for an image or access other types of databases—all features we take for granted today when we “google” something. However, at the time, search engines were more like software you see on a public library computer. Everything was based on words, not context.
The Dawn of Google
So, what made Google different? Why, among so many competitors already on the field, did Google win the game and then buy the stadium? Relevance. While other search engines compared text, Google developed an algorithm that looked for context. Instead of trying to match the keywords of your search exactly, Google offered something new. Of all users who have searched for your keywords, Google served up the page those users found most relevant, based on a number of factors. The internet would never be the same.
The Rise of Relevant Ads
Today we think of the internet as this big, omniscient thing that tracks our lives and crunches all our personal data to serve us ads for relevant products. And it is, really. But that wasn’t always the case. The early internet was just as wild for advertisers as for users. Before targeted ads, buying ad space on Yahoo! was like buying ad space on a billboard. Your ad sat there for a general audience to see and that was it. The user side was just as random. Ads for Rolex and Spam may be served side-by-side because the internet didn’t know anything about you. Terms like “browsing habits” were far in the future for a reason.
How completely Google changed the landscape of search ads cannot be overstated. Google made internet search more profitable than anyone imagined possible by understanding the relationships between online searches and purchase habits and using it to customize the internet. Searching for photos of a new luxury car? Here’s an ad for its competitor. Spending time on travel sites? Check out these rates on flights and hotels!
When the Internet Got Spooky
You know that feeling you get when you’ve just had a conversation about a product and then get served an ad for it? Before Google, that feeling didn’t exist as a response to the internet. You could be anyone and nobody knew. There was no social media record of your life. The internet was wild, unregulated and almost totally anonymous, and Google’s significance to this change was cosmic. From then on, the internet would be personalized.
Internet users from the early 2000s will remember when the move towards personalization became noticeable. It felt like the internet itself was suddenly aware of who you were, where you lived and what you were into. Before, users were barely aware of their browser history; now, they became more conscious of their browsing habits. Fast forward to today, add in the personal data input revolution that is social media, and we feel that our whole lives are online for the world to see. Because they are.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Whether or not Google constitutes a monopoly is for the courts to decide, but there’s no doubt that its influence is almost total in most parts of the world. The $700-billion question is this. Would the internet be better if Google had significantly less influence? There are “competitors” out there right now—Bing, Yahoo, Baidu, Ask.com, DuckDuckGo—attempting to take on the world’s largest search engine. Currently, not one of them controls more than 2.2% market share, compared to Google at a monolithic 92.3% of world-wide market share.
So, can there be a “next big thing” in the search engine story, or does Google cast a shadow so large that it forces potential contenders to wither in the shade? One thing is certain. If you’re going to start a war with Google, you use guerilla tactics. Unless Amazon or Apple get into the search engine business (speaking of monopolies), no one will challenge Google on size. Ditto name recognition. But the next Google won’t be Google. It will be something altogether different, a reaction to Google’s perceived weaknesses, like privacy and China.
Rolex and Spam
One solution to Google is essentially the same as the problem it solved—anonymity, the untracked user experience. Yes, you may live in Arizona and get ads for hockey sticks, but, having run the gamut of targeted digital marketing, you’re now content with this. For advertisers, the opposite of Google is spending more money on every search engine that can scrape up enough venture capital to buy a Superbowl ad, like it was in the early 1990s. And targeting your ad based on demographics or geography or any other distinctive factor will be a receding memory, like cigarette commercials and AOL CD-ROMs in your mailbox.
Too Big to Fail
Even bigger than Google is the change it brought to the internet, and it’s unlikely that anyone in the government will put that genie back in the bottle. Privacy concerns, no matter how politically heated, will not demonetize the online world and return advertisers to the dark ages of untargeted, general audience mush. The personalized user experience that the modern web has become is here to stay, whether we call it Google or something else. And while other search engines may use the novelty and idea of the “private web” to lure curious users, when you want to know something, you’ll do what we all do. You’ll google it.