Google reigns supreme in the search engine market. But how popular are its rivals and can they narrow the gap?
- Google’s dominance in technology means it is unlikely to lose a significant amount of search engine market share.
- DuckDuckGo was the most popular alternative amongst the professionals I spoke to.
- Search engines like Swisscows and Ecosia are good social and ecological alternatives.
You know you’ve made it when your brand becomes a verb. Google is a prime example of that.
Google is so many things: a noun, a verb, a brand, a company, but more importantly, a powerful search engine. Astoundingly so.
Here are some stats from Renderfoster:
- Google’s market value is worth $739bn
- Google has nearly 93% of the search engine market share (worldwide)
- In the time it takes to blink (that’s a tenth of a second), Google receives 6,300 searches
With numbers like that, how can any other search engine compete? And why should they?
I’ll get to those questions later but firstly, we need to define what a search engine is.
What is a search engine?
Search engines are systems used for information retrieval. When’s the last time you went to a library and needed to find a particular book? You either have to ask someone or you use a computer to find it. The library catalogue is a type of search engine. You search for what you need and find it.
But the most popular type of search engine is a web search engine and rather than just books, people search for all kinds of things. Other types include:
- Metasearch engines (like Skyscanner or Kayak)
- Desktop search tools
- Online library catalogues
- Intranet portals
How many search engines are there?
On the Web? Lots.
On every computer on the planet? Even more.
The truth is, there isn’t a way of knowing exactly how many search engines there are because many are inaccessible to the public or otherwise private (on home computers and the Dark Web, for example). For simplicity, I’ll be looking at 9 of the biggest search engines who take up the remaining 10% market share.
Was Google the first ever search engine?
No. In fact, Google wasn’t even the first name for its search engine. The company was originally called BackRub before the name change in 1996.
At the time the World Wide Web (as it was known back then) was made public, there were four major search engines available.
W3Catalog lasted three years between 1993 and 1996 before a revival in 2010. Originally named “Jughead“, the name was changed to avoid a lawsuit from Archie Comics who already had a character called Jughead.
Keeping up with the Archie theme (Aliweb stands for Archie Like Indexing for the Web), Aliweb is seen as the first ever Web search engine. Webmasters had to submit their sites to be featured but not many did, which resulted in its downfall. And it’s still around!
Unlike the others, JumpStation was hosted in the UK at the University of Stirling in Scotland. For many, JumpStation was the precursor to Google in its style and simplicity. Unfortunately, the service became defunct in 1994, just a year after it was released. You can read more about JumpStation and its creator, Jonathon Fletcher, on the BBC website.
World Wide Web Worm
The search engine with the 4 W’s started out as a research project at the University of Colorado and had 110,000 indexed pages and 300,000 forms of multimedia by the end of 1994 (the year it was released). The project died in 2000.
Major alternatives to Google Search
The previous four search engines paved the way for Google but didn’t have the staying power. But which of the modern search engines can truly compete with Google in 2020?
(note: market share statistics obtained from Stat Counter, as of November 2019)
In 2009, Microsoft launched Bing as a direct competitor to Google and replacement of its Live Search service. People make fun of Bing and its users (an affectionate acronym for Bing is Because Its Not Google) but the search engine achieved a lot of success in a short amount of time and with it powering Yahoo’s searches (more on that later), they own a decent amount of market share.
Why it’s a competitor: Being Microsoft helps. People always find alternative services in any industry. And a service powered by one of the biggest tech companies in the world shows trust and stability. There’s also the fact that all Windows PC’s have Bing as the default search engine on the default browser. Some people carry on using it after that.
Yahoo! was the first search engine I ever used and I carried on using it until someone said Google was better. And in hindsight, they were right.
Yahoo! started as an online directory in 1994. In the year that Google became Google, Yahoo was the #1 search engine but they’d find themselves requiring Google’s technology to power their searches 6 years later.
The reason? After the dot-com bubble, Yahoo! failed to adapt to industry changes, leading to its dwindling popularity and in 2009, Yahoo’s searches were powered by Bing.
In 2017, Verizon Communications bought Yahoo for $4.48bn and two years later became part of Verizon Media, its online and media business division.
Why it’s a competitor: It’s more past reputation than anything else. But it’s not a strong competitor by any means. Yahoo’s recent revamp felt more like a lick of purple paint over decaying wallpaper than anything else. Its saving grace is Yahoo! News, with around 200m visits a month and large ad revenue (£3.03bn in 2018).
What does a country do for searches when it bans Google due to censorship? It creates its own. Baidu is the #1 search engine in China and the third most popular website in the world according to Alexa Internet (as of October 2019). That’s an amazing achievement for a search engine primarily available to a nation that holds 18% of the world’s population.
However, Baidu’s success outside of China isn’t nearly as prolific for that same reason. Niche probably isn’t the right word to describe China in any capacity, but Baidu has a “niche” that it covers well and doesn’t show signs of expanding on that any time soon.
Why it’s a competitor: While Baidu doesn’t have a stronghold for global market share, being the #1 search engine in the most populated country in the world is a major achievement. But that’s the only upside. If Google can reach an agreement with China to get back in, Baidu would likely see their local dominance turn to dust.
A major reason why people prefer to use other search engines is due to Google’s questionable history with privacy.
DuckDuckGo prides itself on privacy and avoids “the filter bubble of personalized search results”. It does this by showing everyone the same search results for any search term as opposed to Google which uses predictive learning based on your data.
As of November 2019, it had over 48m daily searches on average and it’s a popular Google alternative (as I’ll discuss later.)
Other alternatives to Google Search
Those are the biggest search engines behind Google but they aren’t the only ones. I’ve picked 5 alternatives with their own quirks and unique features.
Most digital marketers know Ahrefs for their outstanding SEO software but the company also has their eyes set on creating a search engine of their own.
In early 2019, Ahrefs CEO Dmitry Gerasimenko announced a plan to create a search engine to support content creators and encourage privacy. He also proposed a generous search revenue split in favour of publishers – 90/10.
Amazon is more than just an online retailer and alleged small business killer. Searches play a big role in Amazon’s e-commerce success and but offers differences with Google in terms of search intent, algorithms, and keyword relevance. And according to eMarketer, more product searches start on Amazon than Google.
All social media platforms have a search function but they’re rarely seen as search engines. But Facebook’s search functionality is used over 1.5bn times a day. The purpose is different overall but Facebook offers a lot of similar services to Google that you can search for including:
- Marketplace (similar to Shopping)
- Places (similar to Maps)
- Posts and Pages (similar to any webpage you can find in Google’s index)
In a similar vein to DuckDuckGo, Swisscows is a search engine with privacy as its USP. The Swiss search engine is data-secure, meaning users’ privacy is protected and they don’t monitor or store any data. But they go further by promoting “family-friendly Internet content”. And it’s all powered by a datacentre in the Swiss Alps.
Want to save the world? Search with Ecosia.
The German search engine pledges to plant trees with every search. You search with Ecosia, search ads generate money for them, and they use that money to plant tress. At the time of writing, they’ve planted over 81m trees at over 9,000 planting sites at a rate of 0.8s per tree.
What search professionals think of Google and its competitors
I can talk about search engines all day but it’s always nice to get opinions from other professionals in the community. So I asked a few about their thoughts on Google, its competitors, and who they’d use if Google wasn’t around.
Benjamin Houy (Grow With Less)
Google is getting increasingly greedy and just added favicons to SERPs, making it harder than ever to see the difference between organic results and ads.
This is an excellent opportunity for search engines like DuckDuckGo and Qwant who promise to offer more neutral results. DuckDuckGo has gained a lot of traction in 2019 and I believe they may be able to position themselves as a serious alternative to Google in 2020.
I love using Duck Duck Go because it doesn’t have Google’s tendency to show me websites I already visited before and therefore allows me to discover new websites and not restrict myself to those I already know. I also appreciate the fact that it respects my privacy and ironically seems better at respecting Google’s former slogan “don’t be evil” than Google themselves.
Marc Sloan (Context Scout)
In English speaking countries, Google has too much of a monopoly and competitors like Bing and DuckDuckGo are not even close. Where Google is starting to suffer though is in regional markets such as China (Baidu) and Russia (Yandex). The ‘free web’ is becoming increasingly fragmented with countries like Russia even starting to look at unplugging itself from the world-wide web, where Google can’t touch it. You can expect huge populations in developing countries to prefer local search providers.
Geopolitics aside, what will eventually kill Google is when we eventually change our interface to information. Right now, we use web browsers and mobile to access text-based information. But with tech like AirPods growing like crazy, and 5G and AR around the corner, our next interface may be visual and contextual depending on what we’re seeing and hearing. Think Iron Man’s suit AI. The company that will kill Google probably already exists and no one’s heard of them yet.
Kenny Trinh (Netbooknews)
I don’t think anyone can topple Google off #1 in terms of market share. Google is at the top right now and I really don’t see any contenders for the throne.
Google has the biggest worldwide market share, from 76% and 92.96%, depending on you ask. The second biggest, which is Bing, on the other hand, only has an 11.12% market share. That’s how big the gap is and that will probably remain for a long, long while..
If Google didn’t exist, I’d most likely use Bing. I like the minimalist design, very much like Google, and it’s the second browser than I can trust to give reliable search results. Plus, it’s headed by Microsoft, a name that’s as much as a tech authority as Google.
However, the only thing that Bing has going for it is that it’s owned by a tech giant called Microsoft. Other than, design and search result wise, it doesn’t have anything better to offer than Google.
DuckDuckGo, on the other hand, can make Google run for its money when it comes to privacy. Users who like to browse anonymously should definitely use DuckDuckGo. It doesn’t collect your browsing history and has less ad spam compared to Google.
Ian Lockwood (Boom)
I discovered the web at University in 1995, so it would have been Lycos or Yahoo! (which was a search of its directory, not a search engine with a crawler). I moved on to Altavista the following year and probably stuck with that until Google launched.
In terms of a direct fight, I don’t think anyone can knock Google off top spot. What’s more likely is that the way we use the web (or other services running over the internet) will evolve and search may not be the dominant way we find things any more. If Google haven’t already bought or developed whatever new technology search evolves into, then they will have a direct competitor.
Of course, with Google’s resources there’s every chance they will be the ones to own this future technology, so won’t be losing their dominance any time soon! The only other way it will happen is if governments reverse the trend of the last 40 years and actually take action against what is clearly the dominant player in an oligopoly abusing its position on a regular basis, by splitting Google up or otherwise limiting its power in the market.
I recommend a read of both The Myth of Capitalism by Jonathan Tepper and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shosana Zuboff in relation to that last point!
If Google didn’t exist, I suppose I’d use DuckDuckGo just to support the “little guy”, but you still get ads!
Honestly, I think Google’s competitors do very little better than them! Naturally I prefer the lower level of surveillance capitalism you get from DuckDuckGo, but that’s about all you can say is better – the interface, features and results themselves are simply better on Google than Bing or anything else. You just have to accept the price of them hoovering up every bit of data about you they can in return.
And in response to the bonus question, “do you remember when Google was Backrub and Ian said:
Not really, it was largely unknown over here. I do remember Google launching in the UK and a colleague pointing to their screen saying how much better it was!
Final thoughts: does Google have anything to worry about?
Based on all the evidence and professional opinions, my answer would be no. Google’s current stature and continuous growth is so ingrained in how we use technology, it’d take something significant to change the search engine landscape.
But Google isn’t just a search engine. It offers integral technology to a lot of countries. For example, Android has over 2 billion monthly active users, more than any other operating system on the planet. Its market share eclipses iOS in countries like India, China, Brazil, and Russia (an average of 84.97%).
That doesn’t mean there aren’t good alternatives out there. DuckDuckGo was a resounding choice from the professionals I spoke to and its focus on privacy was a key reason why.
Perhaps we, as users, shouldn’t use search engines as monoliths but spread our searches across multiple platforms. Between Ecosia’s efforts to plant more trees, and DuckDuckGo’s privacy policies, we could be more conscious of how we spread our data.
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