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Search Guru Sees Multiple Engines Blooming

NEW YORK -- The "search wars" are entering a new phase, with emerging realities such as paid listings and personalized searches beginning to impact the landscape just as Google's dominance wanes, according to a search engine expert.

"The Google monopoly that people feared is over," proclaimed Danny Sullivan in the Tuesday morning keynote during the Search Engine Strategies Conference & Expo 2004, at the Hilton Hotel here.

Sullivan, editor of JupiterMedia's SearchEngineWatch.com, believes Google will remain a preeminent brand, with No. 2 Yahoo continuing to nip at its heels. But he says the market will resist consolidation and multiple "search voices" will continue to be heard.

Sullivan said the search players are jockeying for position and argued that MSN has an advantage because the default setting on Internet Explorer sends users to MSN.

AOL, he said, "essentially has their own browser built into the software." Moreover, Sullivan also called AskJeeves' seemingly scant 3 percent market share was nevertheless a "significant slice."

While the search arena will continue to support multiple players, the market will become increasingly difficult for the smaller fry. Smaller players may not have the traffic necessary to drive revenues, Sullivan said. And if they do start to grow, stress on their servers and spam may bring them down.

Moreover, it will be tough for new players to gain traction. "It's very difficult to create a search engine," Sullivan said. "There's a great barrier technologically if you want to build an engine that crawls the Web. Microsoft has been [working on] this for two years and they're not finished yet."

Nevertheless, niche providers that fill a need will thrive. "We have the cable model in search," he said. "We're going to have smaller players." He pointed to Gigablast and the news search engine Daypop as viable examples.

To build mindshare, Sullivan said in his speech, requires word of mouth.

He pointed to a December 2003 NetRatings survey which found that 52 percent of users selected a search site based on its ability to provide relevant information.

Looking forward, Sullivan said he sees Google as being in a state of flux because it will not "pick an algorithm and go with it."

Sullivan pointed to Google's Orkut.com operation as a pacesetter for the trend toward personalization, where search results are customized according to users' interests.

Turning to Yahoo, Sullivan noted that "the big change is everyone will pay on a cost-per-click basis. This brings up some real fears that some sites may not get included [in search results]."

Sullivan said he expects to see Yahoo clarify its policies in the near future, and pointed out that Yahoo has attempted to reassure marketers that their sites will be included even if they don't pay.

"Overall I think there's a mixed message in paid inclusion," Sullivan summed up. "It's a very confusing product."

In closing, Sullivan warned his audience not to rely on free listings, but to use a combination of paid advertising and free listings.

Editor's note: Search Engine Strategies Conference & Expo 2004 is produced by the parent company of this Web site.