Much hullaballoo today with the announcement that a search engine start-up has licensed some cool “natural language search” technology from Xerox. The start-up, Powerset, hasn’t actually deployed the technology yet, but it’s apparently pretty cool, so now the story is that Google shareholders should start quaking in their boots.
Google shareholders should definitely quake–the stock’s expensive enough that any hitch in the company’s performance could knock off 30% off the price before breakfast–but this fear shouldn’t be because of any search-engine start-up. A mistake that Google observers and industry participants repeatedly make is thinking that Google’s dominance of the search business is a function of the quality of its search results. Build a better search engine, this wishful thinking goes, and you’ll bring Google to its knees. Sorry, but you won’t.
It’s true: Google rose to power because it built a better search engine. It’s early product advantage, however, is not what preserves its power today. What preserves Google’s power is that it has become synonymous with search. Except for some fringe fanatics who will always defect to the cool new thing, Google’s user base has no idea whether its search results are any better than the competition’s and doesn’t care. All they know is that “Google” equals “search” and that, if they try a couple of times, they can usually find what they’re looking for, so why to bother switching. (Don’t believe me? Just ask the folks at Ask).
For Google to lose the search game now would require a blunder of Yahoo-like proportions. Specifically, Google would have to become so obsessed with, say, whipping Microsoft in the office productivity market that it took its eye off the search ball (the same way Yahoo did back in the late 90s, when it threw all its energies into becoming a portal and opened the search door for Google). It is not inconceivable that this will happen, but it’s also not likely. So no matter how cool that Powerset technology is, Google’s shareholders can rest easy.
(And, of course, with a $150 billion market cap, they can also remind themselves that, if it’s reeeeaaaaalllly cool, Google will just buy the company.)