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How Vulnerable Is Google?

Google is by far the most popular search engine in the world with 71% of the market. While Google does many things, they make over 90% of their revenue from ads. In terms of revenue, that means that Google is a one-trick pony. If users switched en mass to another search engine, could Google’s ad revenue quickly dry up?

Why would anyone switch search engines? If you were not aware, Google tracks what you search to optimize ad placement and thus ad revenue. And though some people may not care, privacy seems to be more and more of a hot button issue these days. If a lot of people decided they didn’t want to be tracked by Google, they may switch search engines. There was a time when the alternatives to Google weren’t that great. Bing and Yahoo are OK but they track you. But today there are search engines like DuckDuckGo, Ixquick and to a lesser extent Blekko and Ask (with the AskEraser feature turned on) that don’t track you. Though privacy is actually its main selling point, that’s not why I recently switched to DuckDuckGo. I prefer the clean look of DuckDuckGo’s results and those results seem to be just as good as what I’d get from Google. They may not be, and Google might also be faster or slower than DuckDuckGo, but I can’t tell and that’s the point. If the average user can’t see any difference in search results’ quality or speed, then the playing field is level in terms of those two very important search engine attributes. Like Google, DuckDuckGo has ads, but they feel far less intrusive and create far less visual clutter.

Google Search

Another important consideration when switching search engines is how difficult that switch will be for the user. Despite privacy concerns, people won’t switch unless it’s easy to do so. Switching your browser to default to another engine is very simple. Once done, the user experience of doing an actual search is nearly identical, making the switching cost for the end user extremely low. This only adds to Google’s vulnerability.

In 2013, mobile search grew from 17% to 28%. That’s a huge increase in mobile’s impact on searching – (65%) in 12 months! And mobile search is likely to continue to grow. Google has ads in their mobile search results just like they do on the desktop. Is Google vulnerable when it comes to mobile search? Potentially, yes. While Android has the majority of mobile marketshare, iOS devices produce almost the same amount of web traffic according to NetApplications. If iOS users abandoned Google as their search engine, it would have a pretty noticeable impact on Google ad revenue especially as mobile search is growing quickly.

DuckDuckGo Search Xojo
Apple recently made DuckDuckGo an option for the desktop and mobile versions of Safari. What if Apple made it the default search engine? I wonder how many people would notice? Apple has made it clear that your privacy is of great concern to them. That could be a good reason to switch. DuckDuckGo is a small team of about 20 people funded by its founder (and now by ad revenue). Apple could buy DuckDuckGo and go into the search engine business. They certainly have the infrastructure to do so and Apple and DuckDuckGo both care about privacy and user experience. Those two things would be reason enough to do it. With search being such an huge and important activity, I certainly suspect that Apple is thinking about this. Perhaps they have their own ideas about how to make search better. Perhaps there’s a project inside Apple to make a search engine that will blow away Google. Since Apple does not depend on revenue from search the way Google does; if Apple provided a search engine (either by building one or buying one), they could make the ad rates far more attractive than Google’s. Apple could quickly and easily take a bite out of Google. How big a bite remains to be seen of course, but it could certainly do some damage.

I used to think that Google had the search engine market locked up. I’m realizing now that their hold on that market is tenuous.

What search engine do you use? What would make you consider switching? Does search privacy and the results user experience matter to you?

Update: The Spotlight Search in iOS 8 and in OS X Yosemite both provide web results for your searches. In both cases, Microsoft’s Bing is the search engine and it’s not configurable. That’s a definitive example of where Apple has steered web searching away from Google.

Update 7/2/2015: Apple has confirmed that the web crawler identified as Applebot is theirs and that it provides information for Siri and Spotlight. It’s looking increasingly likely that Apple plans to continue to take over more of the internet search function which only makes Google’s business all that more vulnerable.

Update 10/9/2015: Alternative and non-tracking search engine, DuckDuckGo, has recently indicated they are profitable proving that you can make money without tracking users.