What might a Google killer look like?
Last week a lot of people were musing whether it would have search results in three columns with tabbed pages and irrelevant thumbnail images, with a black homepage background instead of a white one. That so-called killer, in the form of Cuil, wound up not being a case of Goliath meeting its David so much as it was Goliath waking up with a minor case of halitosis. It was at most a temporary nuisance, and as is often the case with halitosis, it seemed to rile everyone else much more than it bothered the one afflicted with it.
Here’s another vision of what a Google killer looks like: it’s a downloadable program rather than a Web site, but you can use this program to access any site you want. You can use it to search, but it’s much more effective to visit Web sites you already know about and probably visited before. If you can’t remember a site you visited previously, you can type in a relevant keyword or two and it will show you the relevant sites from your history. You can customize the program to access countless other programs and tools, from weather forecasts to Twitter, all without going to any other site at all.
You might recognize this killer as the Web browser Mozilla Firefox, version 3 specifically. Its “awesome bar,” where one enters a site’s URL, is extremely effective at bringing up relevant sites visited previously. For instance, if I type in “video,” the links it suggests include a Facebook video application, digg.com (its page title says “All News, Videos, & Images”), VideoEgg, CNN, Myhava.com (a site for a Slingbox-type device), and video search engine Pixsy. In practice that means I don’t need to run a search if I can’t remember the name of the video news site, application, search engine, ad network, or gadget I wanted to visit.
While Firefox 3 just launched in June and it’s too soon to gauge its impact, it’s conceivable to envision Firefox eroding the number of searches conducted over time. Firefox is the bigger threat to Google than another search engine because Firefox changes user behavior. The smarter Firefox gets and the more users grow accustomed to it, the more it can eat away at the massive volume of searches that are meant as direct navigation, where one searches for a known site instead of typing it in. That in turn is a mixed bag for marketers. On one hand, marketers may be able to decrease search spending on consumer retention since they won’t be paying for some consumers to return to their site. On the other hand, every search is an opportunity for multiple marketers to make their pitch, so generally marketers lose out by decreased search inventory.
Whether or not Firefox delivers the impact described here, it’s still important to look for disruptive forces rather than marginally different competitors. TV networks aren’t threatened so much by other networks or even other media; NielsenMedia reported U.S. viewers watched an average of 4 hours and 34 minutes of TV from 2006 to 2007, up from 3 hours, 56 minutes a decade earlier, even as Internet penetration and usage skyrocketed. TV’s biggest threat is from digital video recorders, which are offered by cable providers who, somewhat ironically, want people to watch more TV. As another example, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail may have faced competition from Gmail, but all of them face challenges from increasing communication across social networks, instant messaging, and text messaging. Automakers are less threatened by newer models like the Prius than they are by economic forces that lead consumers to take public transportation instead of upgrading their car. The Hummer killer isn’t the Prius — it’s Amtrak.
Think back a decade ago. There was this beloved, quirky powerhouse of a site that billed itself as a directory which made it easy for consumers to browse through its categories and find all of the best sites on the sprawling web; there was also easy access to email, news, and stock quotes. Then along came this new site with an equally goofy name but with barely any functionality or links. There was really only one thing you could do with it. Yahoo wasn’t bested by another portal but by a search engine.
Whether that search engine in turn is bested by a browser or something else entirely, recall that the heavily armed warrior Goliath was outfoxed by an underage, musically gifted shepherd with a slingshot. No one was looking at David saying, “That’ll be the Goliath killer.”