Project meeting

Think Google. Think search engine.

Think Google. Think search engine.

Google, founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1996, will always be synonymous with being the leading player in search engine market – although the reality is that Google has become a lot more than just a service that ranks web sites.

It’s a browser, it’s an email, it’s a blog, it’s a mapping service, it’s a video sharing web site, it’s a social network – you get the picture – Google has well and truly spread its metaphorical wings.

However, while Google continues to turnover an annual profit in the billions, are they losing sight of the project outlined by Page and Brin in the late 90s?

Figures from Experian Hitwise suggest that they may have taken their eye off the ball. The data shows that – in the US market – Google has lost five per cent of its search engine share to Microsoft’s Bing.

Google now holds a reported 65 per cent of searches in the US – compared to 70 per cent in May 2011. On the other hand, Bing has risen from 23 to 28 per cent in the same time period.

Ironically, it is Microsoft that Google have been warned about.

Not because of their search engine competitor, released in 2009, but because of their over-zealous and consuming strategy that consists of trying to cover several technological markets rather than streamlining their ventures after the initial success of the Windows operating system.

Google’s eyes are wandering.

In 2010, the late leader of Apple, Steve Jobs, claimed that Google needed to maintain their focus on what they do best.

“Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up,” said Jobs.

“It’s now all over the map. What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest, because they’re dragging you down. They’re turning you into Microsoft.”

Is Google resting on its laurels or has Microsoft identified a weakness in its younger compatriot?

Microsoft have certainly thrown some weight behind their re-branded search service (previously MSN Search and Windows Live Search) by promoting it extensively on their wide-ranging set of products.

Internet Explorer, Xbox 360 and the Windows Phone – amongst others – are all carrying large endorsements towards Bing.  The statistics show the plan could be working.

It’s not just Microsoft that Google need to be aware of either. Two more internet giants – Apple and Facebook – are preparing their offence on Google by announcing a co-operation that sees Facebook becoming an integrated part of Apple’s operating systems.

Apple are also said to be developing a mapping service to rival Google Maps while Facebook are pondering a retaliation to Google’s attack on the social network arena with a search engine of their own – although the idea hasn’t prompted too many likes (see what we did there?!) from some recently surveyed consumers.

Google’s reaction to the potential of increased search engine competition was to propose something called “semantic search”.

The change – which the Wall Street Journal describes as one of the biggest in Google’s history – is geared towards providing users with more direct answers to their search queries rather than producing a list of blue web links.

For instance, if you were to search “What are the 10 largest mountains in the world?” then you would be presented with direct list of mountains on Google’s results page ahead of links to other pages that could carry the relevant information.

Over the past 12 months, Google have also introduced fixes – known as Panda and Penguin updates – to the way their search engine ranks web sites. This addition to the filtering system is designed to make Google’s results more natural and proactive to discovering top quality content.

However, web masters have already reported a negative impact on their respective traffic with over 65 per cent from a recent poll claiming to have been on the wrong end of the updates.

While the Panda and Penguin updates aim to provide the consumer with a greater quality of experience, the proposal to introduce semantic search would surely be implemented with the concept of Google promoting their own products and services.

The goal, according to the Wall Street Journal, is to hold people’s time for longer in the way that Facebook and Twitter do currently.

But is competing with Facebook really a good idea?

Google have been warned about this one too.

James Whittaker, a former Google engineering director, argues that Google’s increased “corporate-mandated focus” on advertisements has driven them to a battle with Facebook – one that they are destined to lose.

“It turns out that there was one place where the Google innovation machine faltered and that one place mattered a lot: competing with Facebook,” says Whittaker.

Google is aware that having a social network will give them access to millions and millions of data on people’s individual hobbies and interests which can be used to streamline advertisements to cater the needs of a respective consumer.

However, Google’s advertisement-driven strategy can only convert to success if they can make a significant impact on the social networking world – something which looks unlikely in the presence of social network stalwarts Facebook and Twitter.

Currently, Facebook attracts 750m unique users a month with Twitter gaining 250m and Google+ just 65m.

Google’s conversion rate isn’t particularly spectacular either. Data from ComScore claims that a visitor to Google+ spends just an average of three minutes on the site a month. Facebook, on the other hand, manages to take 405 minutes of their users’ time a month.

Of course, Google+ is barely over a year old and there is room for improvement but there’s a feeling that this social network race has already been run.

With the figures at the beginning of this piece suggesting that Google’s search engine supremacy has receded, the success (or lack of it) of semantic search will be crucial in defining whether Google can maintain their search stranglehold.

Whatever the outcome, Google are likely to continue their expansion of products and services in order to rival their competitors.

Whether this “spreading yourself thin” technique is really what Page and Brin set out to achieve when they created Google in 1996 is unclear but it’s something that is difficult to see changing drastically anytime soon – although, the company have announced recently that they will “shut down” five of their more unremarkable services.

In any case, maybe Google need to remember – when people think Google, they think search engine. Are Google searching for their focus?