Search me! Bing, Hakia & Co. keep Google honest

Analyst Opinion – Finally, search is cool again. The search engine space, long considered the exclusive domain of Google, is suddenly hot with innovation. Last week’s launch of the Wolfram|Alpha computational knowledge engine may not have repaved the search landscape, but it sends a strong message that the way we find stuff online is about to change. Wolfram|Alpha isn’t alone: Alternative services like Cuil, Hakia and Kosmix may not be popularly used verbs yet, but they all point toward an accelerating rate of change in search.

Before I continue, let’s all agree to banish the term “Google killer” – or, if we’re being thorough, “[Any product here] killer – from our vocabulary. Google isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Neither is the iPhone, the Blackberry or any other long-dominant product or service that suddenly faces new competition, for that matter. New entrants don’t have to kill incumbent players in order to have a material impact on the rest of us.

If we look back at the last ten years, the way we search hasn’t changed all that much: We enter data into a search box and then scroll through a list of links. More often than not, we find something that fits. While the underlying technology has admittedly advanced by leaps and bounds in the interim, to the point that most users only have to enter a search string in once before finding what they’re looking for, the front-end paradigm hasn’t changed in over a decade. As miraculous as the process might seem to someone who grew up on an early version of Yahoo’s index, search still isn’t as elegant or integrated as it could be.

Wolfram|Alpha’s approach takes search one step closer to elegant integration. If Google is like a librarian who answers your questions by pointing you toward the right stacks and shelves before sending you on your way, Wolfram|Alpha’s librarian actually pulls the report together for you, no walking required. Other services put their own spin on the interface and the ensuing experience: Cuil assembles results into categories, Hakia uses semantic algorithms that focus more on quality than popularity, and Kosmix builds contextual pages on-the-fly.

Even Microsoft, long an also-ran in search, refuses to cede ground. Following last year’s acquisition of Powerset, Microsoft is preparing its own next-generation search engine, Kumo, which now seems to be called “Bing”, for release.

Does this mean we’ll all be Cuilling each other anytime soon? Doubtful. First, old habits die hard – and most of us are hard-wired to use Google. Second, each newbie comes with its own set of shortcomings. Google still trumps them all for everyday use, and its recent introduction of enhanced customization options shows it continues to invest, innovate and compete.

And that’s the thing. Even if none of these small players ever makes a dent in Google’s market share – and they likely won’t – their mere existence gives Google added incentive to aggressively introduce new services and tweak existing ones. For all the neat things Google lets us do, its overwhelming dominance has left little room for competition. The current rebalancing, however slight, keeps the 800 pound gorilla honest and ensures we won’t be stuck scrolling through static lists of links for another decade.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian technology analyst and journalist covered with scars from his years leading IT help desks and managing software development projects for big bad insurance companies. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.