Can a web search start-up win?

I’ve found myself starting to get a bit frustrated with Google web search recently. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still awesome when searching for many things. Anything that leads you to Wikipedia, Yelp, etc, will likely be a fast and efficient search. But commercial oriented searches often lead to a long list of spammy sites. For example, the cnet reviews aren’t bad, but is this really the third best site for “DSLR camera reviews”? Travel searches also typically lead to some really awful sites (check out this crap-tastic result on page #1 for “Costa Rica travel”). And long tail searches often require many keyword iterations and testing until you find what you’re looking for. I’m not the only person that feels this way (see this recent Techcrunch post).

This has led me to rethink whether a start-up could actually make a dent in this industry and capture meaningful market share. Paid search is still one of the best business models on the planet, so any start-up that can pull this off would be a huge success.

Historically, I have been pretty skeptical about a start-up trying to take on Google in web search. They’ve got too much brand recognition. There is too much inertia among consumers that don’t want to try something new. They’ve got too much distribution anywhere and everywhere across the web. It’s also not an opportunity for the faint of heart. Even in today’s world of low cost start-ups, it’s not cheap to maintain a proprietary index of the web. Plus you can count on Google outspending you on distribution thanks to their powerful paid search platform. Baidu may be killing it in China, but there was a unique set of circumstances that enabled them to pull ahead of Google. In the US we’ve seen lots of start-ups try, but few – if any – have really succeeded.

But maybe the time is right now. Maybe Google is becoming big and slow enough that consumers will be open to better, more innovative alternatives. The leading contender out there today appears to be Blekko and their slashtag feature. Will this innovation be enough? Can they gain share without Google’s distribution power crushing them? Will the slashtag search experience cross the chasm from early adopters to the mainstream? While it seems like it could be quite powerful, it also feels a bit like a geek feature that may be too complicated for the average user (i.e., the valuable user that actually clicks on paid search results). To try and figure this out I’m going to do an experiment over the next week. I’m going to abandon Google and exclusively use Blekko for all of my web searching. I’m interested to find out whether I’ll be able to genuinely recommend it to others at the end of the experiment. Challenge #1 will be fighting the urge to search directly from Google Chrome’s combined search/address box!

Can a web search start-up win?

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