As marketing challenges go, there can't be many more daunting than taking on search engine leviathan Google. With the exception of China - where home-grown engine Baidu rules the roost - Google's dominance is uniform.
In the UK, it has an 80% share of the search market and shows no sign of losing ground to its closest rivals Yahoo!, MSN, AOL and Ask. According to Nielsen Online, 3.5 times as many UK searches are conducted on Google as on the other 38 leading engines combined.
The yawning gulf between Google and its rivals has been graphically demonstrated in recent times by Microsoft's $44bn (£22bn) bid to acquire Yahoo! If that deal goes through, Microsoft/Yahoo! would still have just 15% of the global search market compared to Google's 62%, according to ComScore.
From a marketing perspective, this is not a sector where advertising can have a seismic impact. Ask, which is the fourth-biggest player in the market, launched a substantial ad campaign (see case study). However, the real energy goes into trying to trump Google's technology.
'TV ads and posters proclaiming the superiority of your search engine won't shift behaviour dramatically. It's the quality of search engine results that dictate usage,' says Dan Cryan, analyst at Screen Digest.
Edward Cowell, technical director of search engine marketing group Neutralize, agrees. 'Google's product works, which is why most people don't feel a need to switch. If it makes any changes to its listings, they are very subtle so as not to make users feel uncomfortable.'
Inevitably, some search specialists will argue that rivals such as Yahoo! and Ask deliver better results. Nonetheless, Google delivers a satisfactory service for most mainstream users.
'The problem for the other engines is that search is a functional experience, so there is little point trying to shake up the status quo through branding,' says Nielsen Online analyst Alex Burmaster. 'To really change things, you have to come up with a better algorithm; make sure people know about it, then make them change a deeply ingrained usage habit.'
These habits are so entrenched that even the offer of money has little impact, says Bigmouthmedia's head of search Andrew Girdwood. 'A few years back Amazon tried offering financial incentives to customers who switched to its search engine A9,' he explains. 'It didn't catch on, leaving Amazon a long way behind in the search race.'
Things might have been different if Yahoo! and Microsoft had taken on Google a few years ago. But they were slow to recognise the emerging threat. In fact, it was Yahoo!'s use of Google as its default search engine (albeit with Yahoo! branding) that put the latter in the driving seat. Although Yahoo! dropped Google in 2004 to build its own search product (based on acquisitions such as Inktomi and Overture), it has played catch-up ever since.
The popularity of Google's product means MSN and Yahoo! have been unable to take advantage of other areas where they might be perceived as stronger. For example, their role in internet service provision and online content means they are able to put their own search products right in front of people. Yet this hasn't stopped the majority of surfers from using Google.
'This business isn't just about marketing to consumers, but the B2B partnerships you build,' says Cowell. 'Google has been very good at getting its toolbar bundled with browser software, so even if you are looking at an MSN or Yahoo! page, you see the Google box in the corner of the screen.'
One important alliance for Google has been with Apple. Anyone who uses Apple's web browser Safari is exposed to Google's search engine before anything else, explains Cryan. Moreover, he says, for mobile search, Apple's iPhone gives Google a 'stronger position in a market which some analysts thought might expose a weakness'.
Yet the question remains as to whether, MSN and/or Yahoo!, even if they do manage to create a search product of comparable quality to Google, can claw back any ground on the market leader.
Possible reasons for optimism fall into three areas. The first, says Burmaster, is that internet users change their behaviour extremely rapidly if given a good reason. Despite Google's dominance, Nielsen's figures reveal 25% of visitors to Google also use MSN on occasion. 'This chink in the armour provides other players to showcase the accuracy of their engines,' he adds.
Second, there are areas where Google is not a runaway winner (see essentials, opposite). India is a virgin territory for search, which is one reason Microsoft has committed $1.7bn (£0.83bn) to the market.
Lastly, the search business is not just about individual search. A big part of Google's business involves providing contextual ad links to third-party websites. Here, its success depends, to some extent, on maintaining the goodwill of media owners, media agencies and advertising networks, either through the way it conducts its business or the financial terms it offers.
'Google's reputation among agencies has improved in recent times after a rather shaky start,' says Cowell. 'But I think there's a general desire among agencies to have more than one place to put their clients' money, even if other engines don't have Google's economies of scale.'
Time for reassessment
The difficulty for rivals is that Google is not just good at search but also integrating advertising. Nevertheless, Bigmouthmedia's Girdwood believes agencies might decide to revisit their relationship with the engine. 'The Google/advertiser relationship is underpinned by agency discounts. But when these stop at the end of 2008, agencies may look at other ways to allocate spend.'
Media owners would probably welcome such a move. Many are angry with Google over subsidiary YouTube's lax attitude to the use of copyrighted video content. 'If News Corp bought Yahoo! and replaced Google as the default engine on MySpace, that could change the market dynamics,' says Cowell.
Yet the prevailing view is that if Google loses its pole position it will be self-inflicted. 'A PR blunder looks the most likely way for Google to be caught out,' says Girdwood.
Underpinning the debate is search's role as only one aspect of the fast-growing online ad market. Google doesn't want to win the search battle only to lose the online war, which is why it acquired DoubleClick to boost its position in display ads, and has moved into social networking (via OpenSocial) and email (via gmail).
If News Corp joined forces with Yahoo!, the entity would have 35% of US display ad impressions, according to ComScore. A 'MicroHoo' partnership, meanwhile, would reach 81.5% of the global home and work audience. 'It could create an ad network that rivals Google,' says Burmaster. The prize is an environment comprising email, search, original content and user-generated media. Search is important, but for Microsoft and Google, it is just one element. How to use social media is the next frontier.
ESSENTIALS - CHINKS IN GOOGLE'S ARMOUR
- Mobile search Yahoo! is a strong competitor in mobile search. This was underlined in February when T-Mobile dropped Google and replaced it with Yahoo!, losing Google 90m mobile users in Europe.
- Desktop search Most of us see search boxes on our ISP home page or embedded in our browser. But search can also be delivered direct from the desktop - an opportunity for Microsoft to get in behind Google.
- Vertical search Google is a generalist search product. Analysts see scope for specialist engines to carve out niche markets. Health is one area where activity has already begun (see Healthline or WebMD). Google and Microsoft have spotted this trend, so expect a response.
- Secondary search Amazon is about searching for books, eBay for auction items. So there may be a secondary tier of search once users have passed through Google's front door. Wikipedia, for example, has launched WikiSeek - the idea being that it will deliver richer results, free from search-engine spam. In December, MySpace US recorded 342m searches, hinting that social networks are the new search forum.
- Rapid rise Google came from nowhere - so why not a next-generation rival with better technology? Search gurus say there are hundreds of pretenders to Google's throne. Names in the frame are Hakia, Mahalo and Powerset, though they are yet to provide a compelling reason to stop Googling. Engines such as Squidoo, which is based on user-generated content, may be the next breakout trend.
DATA FILE - UK SHARE OF SEARCH
Dec 07 Dec 06 % chng
1 Google Search 79.2 74.9 4.3
2 Yahoo! Search 7.0 9.5 -2.6
3 AOL Search 3.9 4.7 -0.7
4 MSN/Windows Live Search 3.5 3.9 -0.4
5 Ask.com Search 2.2 1.9 0.3
UK SEARCH METRICS
Dec 07 Dec 06 % chng
Total searchers 29m 24.5m 19
Total queries 1.5bn 1.2bn 28
Successful searchers 28.1m 23.3m 21
Total click-throughs 1.4bn 1.1bn 32
Click-throughs per search session 3.4 3.3 4
Source: Nielsen Online
CASE STUDY - ASK
Regardless of Google's merits as a search engine, there are concerns over its total dominance of the market.
Ask.com used this idea as the basis of a consumer marketing campaign to coincide with its UK relaunch. It rolled out a guerilla campaign, entitled 'Information Revolution', via posters. At this stage, there was no branding - simply a mysterious, revolutionary-style call to try alternative search engines. This was followed up with TV ads created by Fallon, designed to encourage trial.
Those who did try Ask.com would have found a different kind of search interface. Speaking at the time, UK marketing director Sarah Bartlett said: 'We wanted to show people that the new Ask.com redefines the search experience. Offering web, images, music, videos - more than blue links (ie the Google approach).'
There is no way a campaign such as this could displace Google. But that was not really Ask's objective. Unlike Microsoft and Yahoo!, which view themselves as Google's main challenger brands, the view from Ask headquarters in the US is that it is possible to be fourth in search and build a tidy ad-revenue business.
Given the campaign's job was to persuade people to sample Ask.com's service, the initial results were encouraging. After three months, Ask claimed the campaign had brought it an extra 1m unique users. By year-end, it was the only search engine, bar Google, to have increased UK market share (up from 1.9% of queries to 2.2% year on year).
This year is shaping up to be a pivotal one for Ask's US parent company IAC, which has just posted poor trading results and is embroiled in a boardroom battle. Ask US did not grow as quickly as IAC wanted in 2007, and some analysts query whether its positioning as a generalist engine is sustainable.