In A Digital Democracy, How Long Can So Few Search Giants Dominate?

The golden age of mass media was perhaps best characterized by the peak in audience of the three big broadcast television networks. Of course, that era ended as a fourth and fifth network emerged, and even dozens and hundreds more arrived across cable, satellite and now the Internet.

Many have said the Internet is most responsible for furthering media fragmentation and driving consumer empowerment. The notion of control by only a few traditional media institutions is going away. We've entered a digital, distributed world where the little guy can be heard. Internet search--the rising gatekeeper and window into our media world--is at the center of this evolution.

Fine. But if all that is true, then one of the biggest paradoxes amidst this media power shift is that the new digital ("do no evil") world follows a pattern of dominance similar to the old, in at least one fundamental way. Mainly, while Internet search has been simultaneously disruptive and beneficial by making the world's information more accessible--essentially, exposing the niches and democratizing information--search itself is following a curve where only a few control that access and exposure.



The concentration of power in search is significant: In November 2005, Nielsen//Netratings (via SearchEngineWatch) reported that Google claimed 46.3 percent of total U.S. search volume, Yahoo had 23.4 percent and MSN had 11.4 percent. In other words, the top three services claimed well over three-quarters of all searches.

Perhaps that concentration of audience and power--particularly via Google--helps explain why search is now so often referred to as a mass, shared media experience. How many times has someone asked, "Did you Google this or did you Google that," implying that we all share in the reverie of common results?

So, will the reign of a few big search companies follow the fate of other big media subcategories, which continue to bow to competition and fragmentation (for example, the big three television networks)? Will the disproportionate power structure equalize? This question is applicable to the three top search services as a whole, though Google certainly draws the most scrutiny.

In its most recent annual report filed with the SEC, Google blatantly acknowledges its concerns with the other two major players:): "We face formidable competition in every aspect of our business, and particularly from other companies that seek to connect people with information on the web and provide them with relevant advertising. Currently, we consider our primary competitors to be Microsoft and Yahoo."

Yahoo and MSN as competition are obvious. But what is more interesting in Google's SEC filing is its declaration of other unknown competitive forces: "We also face competition from other web search providers, including companies that are not yet known to us. We compete with Internet advertising companies, particularly in the areas of pay-for-performance and keyword-targeted Internet advertising."

Jeff Jarvis, author of the blog BuzzMachine, recently wrote: "I've been arguing for some time that the real competitor to Google will not be the next big thing but lots of little things." He points to vertical search examples, such as Oodle for job search and Kosmix for specialized searches in health, travel and politics.

I think Jarvis is right, for there is no shortage of specialized services for the niches. All one must do is subscribe to Michael Arrington's Techcrunch blog for a steady stream of scoops on the latest, greatest and most promising. Google is a powerhouse with momentum, with two hungry runners-up, but can only a few institutions be everything to everybody?

Which is probably why Google then alludes to new competitors it will face as it tries to expand into new territories, both online and offline: "We may compete with companies that sell products and services online because these companies, like us, are trying to attract users to their Web sites to search for information about products and services. In addition to Internet companies, we face competition from companies that offer traditional media advertising opportunities."

So, back to that core question: Will the unequal distribution of power in search ever change? Will the Goliaths of search be at all swept by the tide of fragmentation and niches that they helped create?

I think there will always be a place--even a longing--for popular, trusted purveyors of media and information services (which is why big media brands, as in television, will not disappear altogether anytime soon, if ever). But in a distributed online world, I'm not sure the concentration of power in search can remain as strong as it is today. And I happen to be a Google fan. What do you think?

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