"Google it" has become a rallying cry for conducting internet searches. Google so dominates the market for search engines that it's a verb and a noun wrapped into one: Just Google it.
"Because it was a revolutionary jump in search engine technology that had a huge impact on improving results, everyone started using Google. It managed to beat out the competition," explains Peter Kent, author of Search Engine Optimization for Dummies and a Denver-based consultant.
Once Google established its pre-eminence as a search engine, it became the dominant brand and developed customer loyalty. Now, few users will stray from using it. In fact, most people don't even realize that AOL and EarthLink outsourced their search engine functioning to Google so an AOL or EarthLink search is also done by Google. Google has about 62% of the search engine market alone, followed by Yahoo! with 17%, MSN with 9%, AOL with 4%, and Ask with 2% (though that ranking doesn't include YouTube, which isn't considered a search engine), according to a December 2008 Nielsen Online survey.
Kent attributes Google's building a better mousetrap to its algorithm that evaluates a site based on links and trustworthiness. Hence, Google lists a site first that has 10,000 links rather than the one with five links but also evaluates its reliability.
But will a Google search elicit better links and information than a Yahoo!, MSN, or Ask query? "Searching Yahoo! will yield subtle and different results than searching Google but not necessarily better or worse," Kent says. For example, when Kent types in "I have a dream" (adding the quotation marks refines the search) on Google, Yahoo!, and MSN, the top five results including American Rhetoric, U.S. Constitution, and Wikipedia are almost identical, though the order varies. Google and Yahoo! offer videos, but MSN doesn't.
For most internet searches, it won't make a major difference whether you choose Google, Yahoo!, or MSN. But for long tail searches (a term coined by Wired editor Chris Anderson), which are the more obscure searches, each search engine may yield different results, explains Chris Sherman, executive editor of Search Engine Land and author of Google Power: Unleash the Full Power of Google.
Sherman says by analogy if you have a cold, a general physician will suffice, but if you have a rare disease, you might likely opt for a specialist. Long tail queries, he explains, using search engine lingo, "rely on a different link structure and different algorithms to determine relevance."
Some alternatives to Google include Microsoft's Powerset (www.powerset.com), according to Sherman. It's connected to Wikipedia and produces miniprofiles, not just reference links like Google. Moreover, it specializes in semantics and can recognize someone's name and can differentiate from a place (Sydney the person, not the city). Microsoft also introduced Live (www.live.com), a new search engine that Sherman says will eventually be quite different from Google. "Google's focus is to get people to where they want to go as fast as possible, while Microsoft sites help you to get something done," Sherman says. Hence, Live offers better design and additional features such as Notepad, a device that highlights syntax, offers bookmarking capabilities, and makes searching easier.
Continuing his analogy of going to specialists, Sherman also recommends Kayak (www.kayak.com), which is a travel site aggregator. It offers the most detailed information on the best travel deals in flights, hotels, and packages, aggregating information from many sites. And for medical searches, he suggests Medline, which is the website of the National Institutes of Health, as an alternative to Google. WebMD, Merck Manual, and Mayo Clinic all might offer more-detailed and faster-accessed medical information than Google.
A more detailed search gives you a better chance finding a specialized site. If you're looking for the latest websites and blogs, try ResourceShelf (www.resourceshelf.com), which reviews and analyzes the newest sites on the internet. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb; www.imdb.com) has carved out a niche in films. If you want to know who starred in the film Giant, IMDb will get you answers in a no time at all. INFOMINE (www.infomine.ucr.edu) is perfect for scholarly explorations of books and academic articles.
Both Sherman and Kent also recommend Wikipedia as an alternative to Google. Sherman says that Wikipedia conveys the "authority of an encyclopedia." Despite some news articles that noted errors in its profiles, Sherman says that it has strengthened its editorial process, improved its research techniques, and cut down on errors. In fact, he considers it more accurate than links recommended by Google.
"Google," he says, "prints anything that can be published on the web. Wikipedia now has a vigorous editing process." When Kent recently conducted a search about the taxonomy of chimpanzees, he began with Wikipedia. Wikipedia, he says, contains articles on taxonomy and chimpanzees and would be a more targeted way to launch a search than Google.
Though Google is dominant on searches, Sherman notes that Yahoo! is the No. 1 website for overall traffic. Many people turn to Yahoo! for news updates. "It has an incredible depth of content and rich sources of information," he says. Moreover, he uses Delicious on Yahoo! for online bookmarking and Flickr for sharing photos.
Ask.com, which started out as Ask Jeeves, once offered the ability for users to write down a question to elicit an answer. But it no longer relies on that. It recently signed a partnership agreement with Symantec and has been developing partnerships to stay in competition with its larger competitors.
Will any site overturn Google in the future? Sherman notes that Cuil was introduced recently with much fanfare, vowing to take on Google. Cuil (pronounced cool) offered a different approach to scanning the web and possessed more of a magazine layout. Unfortunately, it was released too early, had problems with execution, and has lost steam. It's currently being refined, according to Sherman.
It won't be easy to overtake Google in the future. But a generation ago, many experts thought General Motors was going to be the dominant auto manufacturer for the next hundred years.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.