Opinion

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Choppy waters of search

The nature of search is evolving so rapidly that not even Google can afford to rest on its laurels.

The tagline for Jaws 2 was 'Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water'. In the film, the citizens of Amity Island learned that, having got rid of one great white shark three years before, they could not afford to be complacent. Having got used to life without the disruption of the monster fish, it took them a long time to notice its return.

It is more than 10 years since Google came to town. It wasn't the first search engine - that honour goes to Archie, created in 1990. Nor was it the first to apply the auction model to search - Overture created a stormingly successful business by taking on performance risk, selling search on a cost-per-click basis to hungry advertisers.

Google, however, was the first to make clickthrough a component of its ad-pricing model, ensuring advertisers bought only relevant keywords, and consumers got only relevant ads. It also pulled off the neat trick of providing a service through distribution partners while creating a direct-to-consumer brand without alienating those partners. This is what rocketed Google to the top of the search charts.

In the UK, Google controls more than 90% of search revenue, while in the US it accounts for about 70%.

Globally, its market share averages 67% and it is growing faster than the overall market - up 58% last year against global search growth of 46%.

All this creates a false picture of stability within the search market - that where resources and skills have been developed, they can be applied consistently against an expanding market. In reality, search is going through a revolution on several fronts, some of which erode the dominant player's position, and all of which provide opportunities and threats to marketers' capacity to exploit the online market.

In what might be termed the 'classic' search market, the merger of Bing and Yahoo!'s search offerings is set to accelerate Microsoft's quiet success in taking share from the leader. Yet the fastest-growing competitor is Facebook, where search activity grew 56% in 2009. Social media is not just eroding the traditional base of search, it's creating an alternative behaviour.

Google's PageRank system is, at its core, a social tool, since it relies partly on the opinions and actions of millions of people in linking to sites; but it's an indirect one. The ability for people to ask their friends about products and services means that they're tapping straight into the social graph to get recommendations that are personal and, potentially, more influential.

Facebook has benefited greatly from the growth of smartphones, but nowhere near as much as Google. The Android mobile operating system is set to overtake Apple's iOS within months, and, whatever Steve Jobs thinks, it's giving Google a powerful position in mobile search, where its market share is more than 98% - in a sector that's grown 500% in the past two years.

The third change vector is real-time. Spurred by the constantly updated nature of user-generated content such as Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare, the web has moved from a fairly static traditional publishing model to a dynamic and continuous one.

Search engines are responding by moving from periodically indexing sites to taking feeds directly from them to provide immediate searchability.

Social search, mobile search, real-time search - they are all changing the nature of what search means to brands, and all of these have really arrived in just one year. If we're happy with how we're managing search right now, we would all do well to remember the second tagline for Jaws 2: 'Coming sooner than you think.'

Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist

30 SECONDS ON ... ARCHIE

- Archie, the first internet search engine, was unveiled in 1990 by three students at McGill University in Montreal.

- The name of the system is apparently a play on the word 'archive', with the letter v removed.

- The first version of Archie was developed before the launch of the worldwide web (also in 1990). It indexed third-party FTP archives in local files and allowed users to search them.

- The Archie servers could be contacted by email and via the 'telnet' system, and later through a website.

- In the early 90s, a licensed version of Archie was made available. Exact figures are not in the public domain, but usage reached the millions.

- Although Archie directly led to the development of today's search-engine stalwarts, Google and Yahoo!, a working version no longer exists.

- The University of Warsaw in Poland, however, maintains a legacy Archie server for educational purposes.

- One of the developers, Alan Emtage, later helped to create the URL standard.