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Can Google Stay On Top of the Web? An Inside Look

Posted by: Rob Hof on October 1, 2009

Google’s search engine is often described as a black box thanks to the veil of secrecy the company places over the mathematical formulas that determine what results we see in response to a query. In a feature story just out in the latest magazine, we take a tour inside Google’s search quality group to determine the company’s chances of maintaining its commanding share of the search market.

Truth be told, Google has a vested interest in opening up its black box a bit more. Competitors from Microsoft’s Bing to real-time search engines like OneRiot (and Twitter itself) may not yet be having much impact on Google’s market share. But they’ve certainly grabbed some of the limelight lately, often criticizing what they view as Google’s lack of innovation.

Of course, it’s always possible some upstart will disrupt Google’s well-oiled search machine with a surprising new approach or technology breakthrough—in tech, nobody stays on top forever. But after spending several weeks talking with the search quality team’s leaders and with outside experts, I got the distinct feeling that Google’s core business isn’t in imminent danger.

The bigger question is whether something might disrupt search’s position atop the Internet economy. Twitter, Facebook, and other services are capturing more and more of people’s time and interest, so Google will have to make sure that even as it tries to cement its search leadership, it doesn’t miss the next breakthrough. In that light, it’s no wonder it’s trying all kinds of new services, regardless of whether investors worry it’s getting distracted.

Starting tonight with Udi Manber, Google’s vice president of engineering in charge of search, and in coming days, I’ll be posting extended interviews with Google’s top search leaders on this blog. So check back here each day for new insights from these folks, who to date haven’t talked much to the press.

Update: And how could we forget? My interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt is now live.

Reader Comments

Mark Montgomery

October 3, 2009 4:22 PM

Look forward to the series, Rob.

When Google was still BackRub, the world and web were very different. Page ranking, simplicity, speed, competence, capital, and then a business model licensed in part from Idealab quickly seized what many of us considered to be a massive opportunity missed by the other search engines. I was one looking at everything public in those years, and found Google relatively early even within CS. Too bad I couldn't afford to lead the angel round....

Today we are not faced with indexing and media services like Yahoo!, but rather Google. Bing I thought was the first decent effort by MSFT, which showed what massive scale and investment can do now -- they played to their strengths well.

Clearly technology has advanced considerably since Google launched, and Google has done a good job of remaining in the lead despite a culture of too much capital, inevitable fame, and IMO a bit of dangerous arrogance in thinking they are brilliant in all other technology... but clearly consumer search is Google's to lose.

Like all other maturing tech companies, their underbelly is the conflict of cannibalizing a very profitable model, market dominance that inevitably raises antitrust issues, and a changing world.

Personally I really don't think a Twitter has much of a chance in search -- unless they so radically transform themselves that it becomes something quite different -- whether a start-up or a transformational product in a mature competitor like Bing-- which I don't envision threatening the lead, it will most likely be a next generation technology that changes the game entirely, with a superior revenue model.

Quite possible, but I don't recommend anyone holding their breath.

Mark Montgomery


October 7, 2009 5:26 AM

Some say Google's accuracy in search result pages is dwindling. See this simple search for the phrase "search engine" on Google. Shouldn't Google be at the top?


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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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