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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 April 2007, 09:22 GMT 10:22 UK
Trying to break the Google habit
By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News website

Google mousemat, AP
Getting people to click on another search site is tricky
Google's dominance of the search market, which in the UK stands at 75%, is increasingly being challenged by rivals desperate to become popular with a generation of web users growing up with Google as their homepage.

Given that search is the number one web activity and intrinsic to the fabric of online life it is perhaps strange that most people are content to limit their information-seeking to just one search engine.

With few studies to prove that Google's results are significantly better than its rivals, search engines such as Ask are keen to persuade users to experiment with the alternatives.

But it is going to be hard to break the Google habit.

"There is nothing to stop people using other search engines," said Nate Elliot, analyst with research firm Jupiter.

"It isn't much trouble to go to another but people increasingly have Google on their browser window and even for those that type it in each time it has become a habitual thing,"

It wasn't always so. Mr Elliot remembers a time when searchers were a "far more fickle bunch", with search engines such as AltaVista and HotBot flavours of the month.

Google noise

Google's popularity was partly kick started by its clean, uncluttered homepage which won many admirers.

Now efforts to tie users to it with downloadable search toolbars and services such as Gmail and Google Earth are paying dividends, while partnerships with ISPs, portals and social networks are cementing its brand in consumers' minds.

AltaVista search page, PA
AltaVista was one of the first popular search engines
"There have been no real studies to prove that Google has better results but people think that the results are better," said Mr Elliot.

"Google is seen as being innovative and they do a great job of portraying themselves as innovators. That could be a matter for debate but in the consumer's mind it isn't," he said.

With the search marketing spend in the UK netting a healthy 607m in 2006, being an also-ran in the race to beat Google can be profitable and, increasingly, rivals are realising that overtaking Google in the near future will be a mammoth task.

"It's not about overhauling Google but more about narrowing the gap. There is no point trying to be a flat-out copy. It is more a question of offering a different experience with tools that provide users with a better experience," said Mr Elliot.

Ask, which last year ditched its iconic butler Jeeves, has been working hard to differentiate itself with tools that allow users to get a miniaturised version of a site before they visit it as well as offering ways to refine search around related topics.

Ask has adopted guerrilla tactics to tackle the 800lb Google gorilla in its latest marketing campaign. In a series of TV ads it is represented as a revolutionary underground alternative.

"The Google brand is so ubiquitous that people stop listening to the messages of alternative engines. It is hard to fight through the noise that surrounds Google, especially in the media," said Jim Lanzone, chief executive of Ask.

"When it comes to information people shouldn't limit themselves to one option.

"It isn't really anti-Google. Google just happens to be the brand that people are unreasonably attached to and the issue is that people are not experimenting with other products. It is not about overthrowing the regime but more why you should also elect us," he said.

Meta-search

But while there are studies that show people think search in general is not as good as they would like, there is little evidence that they are looking to switch their loyalties from Google.

Ask homepage, Ask
Ask is offering tools to tune search results
"If people don't get the results they want, they tend to think they have done something wrong, that they should have used a better search term. The reality is that every search engine has clutter and spam and none are as good as they should be," said Mr Elliot.

One alternative is the idea of meta-search - search engines that compile results from a variety of other search engines.

One such is WebFetch, the brainchild of InfoSpace, a company that has been powering the search engines of companies such as The Guardian, EMAP, the London Stock Exchange and Pipex for years.

WebFetch is InfoSpace's first foray into the consumer market and it compiles results from all the leading search engines, including Google, Ask, MSN and Yahoo.

It has limited ambitions - hoping to grab just 1% of the search market in the UK.

"We are not naive enough to think that we are going to take over but perhaps people are looking for something different," said Dominic Trigg, vice president of search and directories at InfoSpace.

Unlike Ask, WebFetch will not be relying on advertising campaigns. Instead Mr Trigg and his team have been given a year to build up the reputation of WebFetch, largely by word-of-mouth.

Its sister search engine in the US - DogPile - has won some admirers. It beat Ask, Google, Yahoo and MSN in a poll conducted by JD Power. The survey rated search engines on a set of criteria, including functionality, ease of use and results.

People-powered

The movement to persuade users away from the dominant search engines such as Google and Yahoo may be small but it is gathering momentum from those with more solid radical credentials.

At the end of last year, Jimmy Wales, founder of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia offered an alternative "people-powered" search engine.

His plan, still in its infancy, is to Wiki-fy the process of internet search, so that human beings decide openly how to rank and organise information, not the huge private servers of Google and Yahoo.

He labelled the project "Search Wikia" and has high ambitions for it to be "the search engine that changes everything". The plan follows criticism of the secrecy surrounding the algorithms of the leading search engines.

The battle to challenge Google could be underway.




SEE ALSO
Google agrees mobile deal with LG
28 Mar 07 |  Business
Google search challenge dismissed
21 Mar 07 |  Business
Privacy bodies back Google step
15 Mar 07 |  Technology
Microsoft attacks Google on books
07 Mar 07 |  Business
Search site retires iconic Jeeves
10 Feb 06 |  Technology

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