There is a famous story about a meeting between Yahoo and Microsoft which took place when Yahoo was still a small start-up. Yahoo was growing at neck-breaking speed and David Filo and Jerry Yang were invited to Redmond to talk about working together.
The meeting turned into a disappointment when Steve Ballmer joined the conversation and gave his opinion on the future of search engines. According to Ballmer Search Engines were a temporary solution to a temporary problem. Ballmer claimed that “within a few years there will only be a handful of websites left. People will use their Favorites to navigate to those destination sites and nobody will need a Search engine except for a few students and professors.”
Looking back at how history unfolded you could say that Microsoft started missing the boat right there and then and has been struggling to get back to the front of the line ever since.
Amusing as it might sound Ballmer’s prediction might not be that insane after all. He might have been wrong then, is wrong now and might be wrong tomorrow but he might be right eventually.
Bing was launched, or perceived, as a potential Google killer. I don’t think any new search engine could kill Google. So what could?
To answer that question we first have to find out what Search actually is. What solution does Search offer and when do you need Search?
The question: When exactly do you need search?
The answer: When you don’t know where to find something
So what if you did actually know where to find everything?
There are billions of webpages and knowing where they all are is simply impossible. But what if Ballmer is right? What if one day we would simply stick to a few sites and spend all our time there?
Google is generally perceived as THE ultimate Search engine. When you look at your actual usage of the Web there are dozens of Search Engines that are a lot better at serving you than Google. A few examples:
If you are looking for People, yes, you might start at Google. But there is a pretty good chance you will Find those people on Facebook, LinkedIn or any other Social Network. When it comes to searching for friends Google is NOT the preferred search solution. Social Networks are.
If you are looking for a book you will probably visit Amazon before Google.
Second hand stuff? You Search for and find it at eBay.
A cheap flight? You would use Expedia or another travel website.
Words or definitions? Answers.com and WikiPedia.org, of course.
Music and movies? iTunes, BitTorrent and Amazon.
Search is only a solution if you don’t don’t how to Find stuff. Once you know how to find 90% of your stuff a search engine will become just one more tool to find the 10% of stuff that you don’t know where to find.
Microsoft sort of understood this when they decided to focus Bing on Travel, news and shopping. These are areas in which answers are easy to supply. Finding knowledge is a never ending quest. Finding a good deal on a digital camera is not.
Bing itself won’t be a Google killer. But the philosophy behind Bing, as explained to David Filo and Jerry Yang by Steve Ballmer, might one day kill Google.
They say that even a broken clock is right twice a day.
Maybe one day Ballmer will be right too.