If Google Never Existed…who would have prospered – Microsoft, Yahoo, Lycos, Excite…
After three days living without Google I’ve had a flavour of what a world where Google never existed would be like. On day two I tweeted: “Google Search is like fingers; you can get along without them, but everything is more difficult”. Something I’ve depended on and taken for granted has suddenly disappeared, and everything was just a bit more difficult and at times, damn frustrating.
So if Google had never existed, which companies would have prospered?
Lycos and Excite
There was a time when if you said “search engine” these two sprang to mind alongside Yahoo and AltaVista. Both had significant market shares in the US, UK and elsewhere pre-Google; both offered free (ad supported) services like webmail and actively competed for marketshare. Today, both are a shadow of what they once were – Excite ended up being owned by Ask and Lycos was sold several times; Lycos Europe liquidated in 2008.
So would they have prospered and filled the Google-size gap? I doubt it; neither were significantly innovative in search. They were portals of content, ads and services. They did monetise search – when PPC engines Overture and Espotting hammered on their doors – but that was it; search wasn’t important.
Ah, the search engine with the butler. Ask had a nice idea – help consumers find relevant sites by asking them to type in full questions – but the concept was surpassed by normal search technology. Google of course became the king of this; but AllTheWeb and Inktomi were both developing their algorithms too. Meanwhile, Ask bought search technology Teoma, created what we now call “universal search results” before Google did, and…that’s it. They never seemed to reach a breakthrough that allowed them to draw ahead.
AOL has often been described as a search engine, and in their days as a dominant ISP commanded a lot of search traffic, especially stateside. But they never significantly innovated in search, monetised through partners and relied on their ISP customers for volume – the rest of us were ignored. If they hadn’t partnered with Google, it would have been with whoever else filled that space.
This is where it gets interesting. Yahoo signed Google to power the search results on their properties and, after failing to buy Google, came to see them as a rival and bought a number of companies, including PPC powerhouse Overture.
So if Google hadn’t existed, I have to wonder if Yahoo would have bought Overture or similar companies earlier on than they actually did to acquire their technology, advertisers and marketshare– and then worked to dominate in direct marketshare and their share of distribution through partners.
This would fit with part of Overture’s strategy – partner with destination sites for distribution – but clash with another element that both Overture and Espotting actively told the market about: they would not become destination sites and would not compete with their partners. Google came along, pursued both strategies and the “frienenemy” was born.
They came to the game very late, and are now innovating – more than one commentator has speculated that Google Instant is a response to Bing’s innovations – but I don’t think they would have entered search earlier on. It would not have fitted their corporate strategy; software was the focus. Google’s success and cash reserves caused Microsoft to get serious about online – a giant had emerged from the Internet shadows to punch at their weight, and keeps punching today.
And the winner is….AllTheWeb-Overture-AltaVista
One of the most overlooked moments in search for me was the day Overture announced they were acquiring AllTheWeb.com.
On that day, Overture sent a big signal to the search engine world – and a shot across the bows of Yahoo and the other engines. From being “that company that provides search ads” Overture was suddenly a rounded search company, at a time search was going mainstream and PPC dollars were becoming significant.
Overture’s strategy at this point shifted – now they could be a destination site, now they could stand alone and compete with all the engines – they had already bought well-known brand AltaVista, who had been competing well with Yahoo etc pre-Google.
So if Google hadn’t existed, and assuming no left-of-field start-up emerged, my bet would be on AllTheWeb + Overture + AltaVista to become a powerhouse in the search space.
The cash from PPC plus the impressive AllTheWeb natural search algorithm and AltaVista brand had intriguing potential to be the next wave in search in 2003. We never got to know if they could become a powerhouse – Yahoo, sensing the danger and the opportunity, quickly acquired Overture and therefore AllTheWeb and AltaVista , and also bought Inktomi, who provided natural search results to MSN, Yahoo and many other engines. Yahoo added $200m to their bottom line as a result.
It seemed Yahoo had taken all the promising technologies off the table and would create something to give heavyweight Google a run for their money. The sum of the whole never reached the potential of the parts, however – a common story with Yahoo acquisitions.
It’s worth noting that I believe this combination would have had the most marketshare; but I have to wonder if they would have had the culture to innovate, take risks and push the envelope that built Google; I feel they would have struggled to end up with a market share over 60% – the pack behind would have been a lot closer than they are to Google today.
PPC Revenues Are The Treasure Chest
Of course this post doesn’t touch on many of the product categories Google has entered into – email, maps, display, mobile, operating systems, productivity software…the list goes on.
All of this innovation was fuelled by PPC revenues (and still is) so whoever had dominated in search would have inevitably entered at least some of these market to diversify revenue streams. I don’t think we would have seen the same eco-systems we do today around Android and the various Google APIs – but whoever was king of search, and especially PPC revenues, would have been in a very powerful position.
As for me – I’m reinstalling the Google toolbar. I want my search fingers back!
(Disclosure: I worked for Lycos UK and Espotting during the period 1999 – 2004)