The Changing Search Engine Landscape

On July 14, 2003, Yahoo! announced it was acquiring Overture for $1.6 Billion (USD).$312 million of this is in cash, the rest in Yahoo! stock. This latest step in the search engine wars has huge ramifications for the evolution of the Internet.

At the end of last year, Yahoo! bought Inktomi, which signaled that Google would in all likelihood lose its cornerstone client. Then Overture, the leader in paid search results took a leap into traditional search by acquiring Altavista and FAST. These two acquisitions were meaningful because Altavista owns what is perhaps the best spider or crawler, and FAST has the fastest search engine database query tool. When fully integrated, these tools could combine to form a very powerful search tool. The question became- What would be their outlet?

Yahoo! had Google under contract, but its widely expected to drop them, once it had Inktomi retooled and had rebuilt the database to the point where it felt comfortable the technologies delivered similar quality results.

Before the integration could be complete, Overture was purchased by Yahoo!, and we now know that the Inktomi technology will be paired with combined FAST and Altavista tools to create what should be the most powerful search tool.

Separately, Microsoft is viewing these changes from two perspectives. On the one hand, they have been building their own search engine to replace Inktomi within their services, and on the other, they were thought to have been interested in acquiring Overture. Microsoft has watched as they have been moved from being the primary supporter of both Inktomi and Overture, to a bystander as both these leading technologies were acquired by their most dominant competitor. This leaves Microsoft with a choice; Continued support for Overture, even though it is now part of its biggest competitor; Build their own replacement for Overture; Or acquire LookSmart, or perhaps a combination of build and buy.

While all these changes have been occurring., and in particular in the last 3 months, the other dominant player in search engines, Google, has more than anything been hurting itself through its own internal failures. They adopted major algorithm changes which were designed to improve results, but were widely panned for delivering irrelevant results. They withdrew the changes two weeks later, but have slowly been implementing more tweaks, to mixed reviews. In the meantime, FAST and Teoma both vastly improved their algorithms and are consistently improving their search results. They may not be on par with Google, yet, but they are getting close.

What should we expect in the next 6 months? For one, we know Microsoft will be getting closer and closer to releasing its own search engine. It should be interesting to see how different it is from all the others. We know AOL will continue to support Google, and we know that the day is coming closer when Yahoo! will either drop Google, or buy it outright. What we do not know as yet, is which engine(s) will emerge to fill the void in the market. Teoma looks strong, technologically, but without major distribution partners, the market is not appealing for them.

Expect more mergers and acquisitions. At least one of the aforementioned companies will begin looking beyond their own internal technologies to drive pure search results.