Search Engines, Brand and Inertia

The conventional wisdom is that there is little or no search-engine loyalty€"Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Jeeves, InfoSpace/DogPile, Lycos, etc. are €œjust a click away€œ from Google. I hear this argument again and again — and as a hypothetical matter it's true.

However, I want to challenge the conventional wisdom with two separate pieces of data that seem to reflect, if not search engine loyalty, then, inertia.

First, comScore recently reported that search engine market share has remained largely unchanged in the past year. Their U.S. data are as follows:

  • Google 36.4%
  • Yahoo! 30.6% (and hasn€™t gained ground)
  • MSN 16.5%
  • AOL fell to 8.9%
  • Jeeves increased to 5.5%, explained as a by-product of its acquisition

There are a lot of people that will dispute this data or cite other studies that reflect different share distribution. But directionally this is consistent with what others have found (e.g., Nielsen, Hitwise, etc.).

Next, take findings from Jason Dowdell€™s survey of the uniqueness of search results. What Jason found was that among the engines he surveyed and tested, €œGoogle had the least amount of unique results when compared to the other search engines.€ (There are many comments that dispute or seek to explain this on his blog.)

In our own research last October with BizRate.com (now Shopzilla) with 3,887 online consumers, findings reflected that 35 percent of respondents indicated loyalty to one search engine (consistent with Google€™s U.S. share percentage). IYP users displayed apparently greater loyalty€"more than 52 percent of IYP users said they were loyal to one IYP site.

What€™s interesting from my point of view are the following:

  • According to Jason Dowdell€™s research, Google is lowest in terms of unique search results yet retains its leadership position
  • Other studies and analysts have similarly suggested that the difference in quality among search results has all but disappeared
  • Google€™s market leadership position has remained basically unchanged during a time of furious competition and search product innovation

I think these pieces of information are evidence that Google€™s leadership is no longer about a better user experience, it€™s about brand (nothing new here) and inertia. People are familiar and comfortable with Google. And the willy-nilly product rollouts/upgrades (toolbar, desktop, image search, local, personalization, etc.) help reinforce that inertia for different consumer-user segments.

What about data that reflect little or no loyalty to search engines? People may indeed use multiple engines, but that apparent lack of "loyalty" is probably a reflection of primary and secondary engine choices rather than true fluidity.

It takes something obviously better to motivate a change in consumer behavior. And unless or until that happens, we're likely to see the market share numbers remain largely unchanged.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Justin Gardner

    Great post. I've been following this trend for my company and it definitely seems to be true. However, I think Google was SO good in the past, that now everybody has finally caught up, and it seems like they're getting worse. Perhaps I'm wrong, but this feels like it's a more likely scenario.

    What's great is we finally have an atmosphere where all the search engines are equal, possibly even the little ones, so you can search any of them and find equally usable results. I use Gigablast quite a bit for finding what I need. Sometimes I use IceRocket and Snap. And I would say 9 times out of 10 I find exactly what I'm looking for. Try it for a week and see if it works for you.

    The question then remains, what's next? Personalization? Hmm…well, that's pretty uninspiring. Let's hope they shock us again and come out with something truly innovative.

  2. Greg

    Aside from something like Grokker (or Dogpiles "missing pieces" interface) there's nothing radical in the works; it's all going to be incremental.

    However, I think things like Furl and Yahoo's MyWeb are pretty cool and useful.

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