On the Internet, the shortest distance between two points is a well-conceived search query. In fact, these days most “surfing” entails a hurried perusal of the first few sites returned by a search engine as you quickly try to find exactly what you’re looking for. Search is the glue that holds the Web together, and while the media hype surrounding Google’s initial public offering might make you think that the technology is fully baked and capitalized upon, in fact things are just beginning to get interesting.
A multi-billion-dollar industry has grown up around search technology. Competition is fierce as household-name companies battle for supremacy on the high end even as a slew of smart, scrappy start-ups vie to become the next Google or, failing that, innovate their way to niche success. The technology is changing and penetrating corporate life in ways that might surprise you. It’s transforming the way companies — including yours, most likely — advertise and market their brands, products, and services. If that’s not enough, search also promises to change the way companies create, store, and share information, both on individual PCs and over corporate networks.
What seems like a simple utility is actually a multifaceted IT issue worthy of inclusion in corporate strategy. Below you’ll find five solid hits that will get you up to speed on the world of search.
They’re Feeling Lucky (And Smart)
From its humble beginnings 14 years ago, when a McGill University student named Alan Emtage invented the first search tool, Internet search has grown into a bona fide industry: market watchers peg the industry’s revenue at about $4 billion. Safa Rashtchy of securities firm Piper Jaffray & Co. expects search-related revenue worldwide to top $11 billion by 2008.
Not one penny of that comes directly from the millions of searches that you and everyone else on the Web conduct each day. Basically, Web search is the content that delivers an audience to advertisers in various and increasingly sophisticated ways.
Most search today is offered in one of two ways: either through stripped-down, search-only sites such as Google that use what’s called algorithmic search (complex formulas to determine the “best” results for any given keywords) or through content sites or portals, including Microsoft’s MSN and Yahoo, many of which also use algorithmic techniques and/or indexing of sites by category.
Google, of course, has proven such a success that its name is a verb. Currently generating almost $1 billion in revenue, with net income of $106 million, the company employs more than 1,900 people (known as Googlers), including two massage therapists and a former neurosurgeon (now an operations manager). Used by 46 million people a month, its engine searches some 6 billion items, including nearly 4.3 billion Web pages, 880 million images, 845 million Usenet messages, and 1,000 mail-order catalogs.
But Google is hardly resting on its laurels, and its rash of recent innovations gives some indication of how much work remains to be done in shortening the distance between searchers and what they search for. New services include Froogle, a comparison-shopping search engine; Search by Number, which can be used to track packages, search for products and patents by UPC codes and patent numbers, or find area codes; and Google Local, which finds stores and services in a given zip code. The company is also rumored to be developing software that will search information stored on PCs.