Search Wars: Who will Capture Your Screen

Whoa! Red alert. Get your fighters fueled and your light sabers charged. In the search engine universe these days, the three big players are all gearing up for a major offensive. On October 14th of this year (2004) the most popular search engine Google announced that they would be releasing The Google Desktop (TGD), kind of a personal google web server. The idea is you download this desktop appliance to index everything on your PC, including files, folders, e-mails, etc., even instant messages. This was the first salvo in the campaign. A volley straight across the bow of the other two major search engines. A warning shot. Google was about to extend its reach into new territory by attempting to capture the personal desktop PC screen. As soon as you boot up your computer, Google would be there.

Suddenly there was a disturbance in the force, felt by the other mighty search domains.

Less than two months later; December 9th to be precise, Yahoo! had mustered its own troops and announced that they too would be releasing a downloadable desktop search application in early January. Now, less than one week after that, who has suddenly thrusted out of space dock? You guessed it, Microsoft. Today, Dec. 13th, they unveiled a desktop search appliance to rival both Google and Yahoo! The beta version of the new MSN Toolbar Suite lets users search all documents, media files and email on their PCs at the same time as searching the Web. In addition to file searching, the updated toolbar also plugs into MSN’s new search engine, which was itself released in beta form in early November. Isn’t that convenient! Since the majority of PC’s are shipped with Microsoft operating systems and browsers already built in, that’s a heck of a head start.

So the stage is set in 2005 for a battle of epic proportions between not one, not two, but three major search engines. What’s the purpose of all this hoopla? What are the search engines hoping to achieve? What’s the prize for victory?

Your computer screen of course.

In the world of online marketing, personalization is the growing trend. The more you seek information online the more you can personalize your own way to search for it. The more you shop online, the more sites you visit and the more news you read, the better it is for a search engine to analyze your browsing behavior. This information can then be used to ‘personalize’ your Internet experience. That’s the company line and they are sticking to it. The engines are betting on the fact that if you use their particular brand of personal search appliance you will probably stick with it and develop loyalty toward the product. It’s a gamble, but one worth the risk. Having a desktop search appliance means being able to scan your hard drive, email, files, folders, notes and the web to find information. Once a specific appliance has, for lack of a better term, permeated your hard drive, it may become difficult to either un-install it or switch to another brand. I haven’t analyzed any of the products yet, but chatter on the search engine forums seems to suggest just installing these programs in the first place can be time consuming and a bit of a chore. Some are suggesting such clumsiness as having to open up each file on your hard drive in order for the appliance to be able to index it properly. I don’t know about you but that would take me weeks. I’m certain they will automate the procedure as the technology develops. As mentioned, I haven’t tested this yet but initial impressions would suggest that Microsoft would naturally have an advantage over this process, as its operating system will already be able to read the documents on your hard drive in a familiar format… it’s own!

I suspect the next logical progression for the desk top search appliance in the guise of personalization, will be the profiling of the user. Profiling is a marketing term, but because of all the crime dramas on television these days, it’s probably better known as a term used within the justice system. When investigating a crime the police often attempt to create a ‘profile’ of the suspects. Profiling is certainly used within the criminal behavioral sciences field in dealing with serial killers. Developing a psychological profile is extremely useful in narrowing down the possible suspects to the ones who display certain behaviors, habits and personality traits.

The principles of consumer profiling within the marketing world are precisely the same, and may be used in exactly the same way. This is not a new concept. It’s been used for decades. Every survey, poll, magazine subscription or club you’ve joined and every store from which you’ve purchased an item with a credit card, has added to your consumer profile. Take a look at your own bank statement or credit card statement to see what type of consumer you have become. See any trends? Do you shop at the same places all the time? Do you go to the beer store a lot. Do you spend your money on travel. Do you often eat at restaurants? Do you buy lots of things for your children? We can learn a lot about ourselves from reading one of these statements with an eye toward not only your spending habits but more importantly, how a marketing person would look at it.

Here’s an example: Let’s assume I spent one hundred dollars the past month on music CD’s. Now let’s assume I bought them online. Now, let’s assume I found out where to buy them online, by using a search engine. So…. Who now knows about my music buying spree? The online music store, the search engine, the credit card company, the transaction processing company, the shipping company, the record label, and of course, me. That makes eight. The total is probably much higher in reality, but we’ll settle for eight for example purposes. How many of those eight (myself aside) are interested in this purchase from a marketing standpoint. Answer: The other seven. One of which is the search engine. So the next time you go online you may find yourself presented with advertising or related links based upon your interests, hobbies, pursuits and consumer behavior. The bottom line? This information on a global scale is worth trillions of dollars.

Profiling is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, we are who we are. Some consumers will actually enjoy the fact that their computer knows them so well. It will make shopping easier. You may get coupons and other special incentives personalized just for you. Reward programs. More air miles, you name it.

To summarize the main point of this article, personal search appliances will be a hot topic in 2005. Now you know why the search engines will be battling it out next year and why you, as a savvy consumer, should be paying attention to this topic. The top three search engines in the world all want you to play with them so they can get to know you better. The decision on who wins this search engine war is up to you. Who will capture your screen?