THE RISE OF ALTERNATIVE SEARCH ENGINES: WILL NEW MODELS LEAD TO A DECLINE IN GOOGLE’S DOMINANCE?

By Tom Whitley

Google needs no introduction. Its name is so ubiquitous that it has become a verb, and it is almost inextricably connected with the very concept of the internet. A report from October 2020 by a US Government antitrust subcommittee found Google is used for 81% of all general searches on US desktops, with that figure rising to 94% on mobiles. In comparison, its nearest competitor Bing handles approximately just 2% of global traffic.

With such a level of dominance, the landscape for start-up competitors is not particularly attractive. But they do exist, pitching themselves as providers of novel alternative services that Google does not, will not, or cannot provide. Creating a search product that is noticeably better than Google may be almost impossible, but capitalising on areas where it is less strong presents opportunities for viable alternatives. Google has repeatedly proved it can innovate, but it might now need to respond to new trends in changing consumer principles and priorities if it is to retain its dominance in the search market.

The socially-conscious search engine

One such opportunity comes from consumers’ increasing desire to choose products that are socially-conscious. Google has made significant and well-received commitments to realising a carbon-free future, but the scale at which it operates precludes any immediate reduction in their carbon emission levels. Google’s promise to operate all its data centres and campuses on carbon-free energy by 2030 is laudable, but search options now exist that can immediately help to fight climate change.

Ecosia, one such search engine, was launched in 2009 in parallel with UN climate talks. It has over 15 million active users and gives 80% of its profits from advertising revenue to tree-planting projects, with a live tracker on its website showing nearly 120 million trees have been planted to date as a result. It claims to be entirely carbon negative, powering its technology with its own solar panels. In March 2020, Ecosia received a significant boost when it was included as a default search engine choice in Google Chrome across 47 markets – the first not-for-profit search engine to be included. In December 2020, Apple’s Safari web browser also added Ecosia, in recognition of its growing presence and the increasing user demand for it.

Ekoru, a search engine founded in 2019, has already gained significant attention for the social purpose it places at its core. It donates 60% of its revenue to partner organisations fighting climate change, with a particular focus on ocean conservation. Its top five user locations are the US, the UK, Germany, France and Canada, and although it is yet to gain the same level of recognition as Ecosia, it continues to grow. Both search engines make use of Bing’s algorithm, so users receive high-quality results with the added bonus of making the world a better place. Widescale adoption of socially-conscious search engines could have a dramatic, positive impact on the environment.

As environmentally-conscious search engines continue to grow, they will force greater scrutiny of Google’s own contribution to climate change. Google has in the past talked about how it is designing more energy-efficient data centres, investing in clean energy, and has numerous carbon-offset programmes, but this does not erase the fact that its infrastructure emits a considerable volume of carbon dioxide into the environment. The new breed of socially-conscious search engines could see Google making more tangible environmental commitments.

The data-conscious search engine and the demand for data privacy

The desire for greater privacy and protection of personal data online is a trend that has been developing for several years. Google, arguably the agitator-in-chief in the minds of privacy advocates, tracks all your interactions with its products to help deliver information and ads it thinks will be relevant to you. This is the price of its premium, ‘free’ product. Search engines such as DuckDuckGo exist as an alternative to this model, prioritising user privacy. Results and ads displayed are based on what the user has searched for, rather than personal data about that user. DuckDuckGo’s user base has grown consistently, but has not reached levels that might impact Google’s dominance. However, the current trajectory of the narrative on data protection suggests that the market for data-conscious search engines will continue to grow. Ecosia and Ekoru have both made similar pledges to protect user privacy – neither of them pass information to advertisers or retain user information beyond a week.

The subscription-model search engine

Google is free to use partly because of an unspoken agreement that it makes with its users: in return for free search results, users will also see a determined number of paid-for ads, usually relevant to their query but also based on their historic searches. Since the inception of Google, the number of ads shown has grown year-on-year.

Neeva is a new search engine that is inverting this model. Currently in the beta stage of development, but expected to launch this year, Neeva plans to charge a monthly subscription fee for an ad-free experience, believing that a superior user experience – unbound by restrictions and pressures from advertisers – will attract users. Online shopping will be impacted by this perhaps most markedly: prime real-estate on your screen will be based on relevance among reputable, reviewed websites, rather than going to the highest bidding advertiser. Whether consumers will be willing to pay for this is yet to be seen, but the very existence of the concept of Neeva, which was set up by Google’s former Senior Vice-President of Ads and Commerce, Sridhar Ramaswamy, points to a belief that Google’s product offering is not as strong as it once was.

Will Google’s dominance in search decline?

Both DuckDuckGo and Neeva have created search engines that Google cannot replicate. Google’s fundamental business model is predicated on maximising returns on the two elements that these alternatives reject: personal data and advertising respectively. Similarly, both Ecosia and Ekoru are reinvesting percentages of their total revenue in sustainability initiatives at a level that Google does not match. On top of this, the results these search engines produce are of comparable quality to Google’s. This begs the question: if we can get the same quality of results while retaining control over our data, contributing to a greener planet, or avoiding ads, why are we all still using Google?

Three elements contribute to Google’s continued supremacy and user retention. First is their technological advantage: building a search engine is difficult and expensive. For start-up competitors, leasing technology from an established search engine is often necessary. Second is capital investment: Google can invest more money into making a better product, without relying on fundraising. The third reason is perhaps the most important and the most difficult to overcome: user preference. Google is well-established as the go-to hub of information for internet users – for many, it is the gateway to the internet. Google is so popular that it has even become part of everyday vocabulary. Its additional services including Gmail, Google Drive and Google Docs, act as a further exit barrier for users.

So, can Google be toppled? While incredibly difficult, this might not be impossible. Indeed, the likes of Yahoo!, Netscape and even Microsoft have shown that omnipotence does not always last.

Two areas stand out as possible avenues to toppling Google. The first is changing technology demands. For example, voice search is a rapidly-evolving technology which, although requiring further innovation and likely only ever to become an alternative way of searching rather than a complete replacement, could provide an opportunity to reduce Google’s dominance. Amazon looks particularly well-placed to take advantage of this.

The second route could be through antitrust measures. In the US, the Federal Government has already sued Google on competition grounds, while in the UK the Competition and Markets Authority has raised the prospect of forcing Google to allow smaller rivals to access its clickstream data. Google will come under greater scrutiny from courts in the coming years, which may open new opportunities for competitors and enable a more equal playing field to open.

What will be interesting to observe is the growth in numbers of the new socially-conscious, data-conscious and subscription-model search engines – and whether Google responds to these challenges. It has already made commitments to offset its carbon footprint, and it may also find ways respond to other emerging trends. It has, after all, proven itself adept at meeting every challenge to its dominance thus far.