IHT Fantasises on GoogleQuestion: How are Internet businesses competing with the Web searcher Google in Europe? Answer: By doing other things.
Few of Google Inc.'s European counterparts have been able to take on the American Web pop star that has over the past two years so handily won over searchers for key words on the Internet. As a result, many European sites often choose to work with, not against, the popularity of Google. Others decide to compete by entering subcategories of the search business to bake their own pies - rather than nibbling at the big one.
"I'd love to be able to give you a straight answer to why Google has been successful in Europe - I've been amazed," said Fabio Selomoni, Google's European director.
Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Europe, which builds its results around Inktomi Corp.'s search-engine technology, would seem to be the most threatened, according to Nielsen-NetRatings Inc., which tracks Web traffic.
Currently, the MSN regional sites are the Continent's most visited Web properties. (The ranking is likely fueled at least in part by Microsoft's dominant Internet Explorer browser software, which sometimes autopilots users to MSN pages, whether intended or not.) Yet Google's reach is now so broad that Tom Ewing, a Nielsen-NetRatings analyst, expects Google to surpass MSN within several months to become Europe's most visited Web "property."
"MSN has not lost ground in Europe," Mark Garland, regional product manager for search and shopping at MSN Europe, countered by e-mail. "MSN is still the number one portal, and search is very much a part of that success."
Among the possibilities for working with rather than against Google in Europe's search business:
Partnering with Google:A Web site displays Google-provided results to its own end-users. Many U.S.-based Web portal and search sites like America Online and Yahoo syndicate Google in this way, their European versions included. The relationship is as Google customer and partner, not competitor, although the sites do in fact compete with Google's own home page.
Google has found similar distribution partners among Europe-only portal sites. A number of country-specific portal sites, such as Italy's Virgilio.it, deliver Google's worldwide and language-specific results.
Google does not lead this business in Europe. That distinction belongs to Norway's Fast Search Transfer AS.
Yahoo Inc., on the other hand, may prefer to ditch its Google ties. In December, it purchased Inktomi, sparking speculation over whether Yahoo will eventually want to compete head-on for search traffic.
"Our interest in Inktomi is that we believe having ownership of your index and control over it is important to gaining relevancy," said Mark Opzoomer, managing director of Yahoo Europe. "This relationship is a step along improving our product."
Hellen Omwando, a consumer market analyst based in Amsterdam for Forrester Research Inc., said such moves signal the tightening race for search audiences with minimal market left to share.
"What you're seeing is competition within the search business to offer technology for the top portals - AOL, Yahoo, etc.," she said. "When Yahoo bought Inktomi - it shows that the pie is shrinking."
Selling paid listings:In this subgenre, businesses pay a search provider to be listed according to particular key words, such as cars and other products and services. These Yellow Pages-like paid listings - sometimes called sponsored links - are extracted by key word from a data-base of advertiser's paid listings. The listings are typically meant to promote products, services or organizations; they typically appear above or alongside topically relevant text search results.
While Google is also in this business, it leads in neither Europe nor the United States. In Europe, Espotting Media aggressively competes with Overture Services Inc., the dominant U.S.-based paid-listing provider, to distribute its paid listings on sites operating around the Continent. Its listings appear in special sections of search engines and portal sites, including Yahoo UK Ireland, Lycos, Ask Jeeves, infospace and Netscape. Advertisers pay to be listed in these specialized, auxiliary results that appear alongside general search listings.
"Espotting doesn't feel threatened by the other large companies because we have alliances with those other large companies," said Daniel Ishag, chief executive.
Localizing results:In another business, separate search results are sold that have been refined according to the searcher's language and location or both.
A smattering of companies around Europe provide country-specific portal sites with their local language keyword search results, such as Fireball.de's own German-only results and Jubii.dk's local search index in Danish. And paid result listings are sometimes delivered according to the geographical origin of a keyword search.
But few are trying to pitch or spread the more intriguing but still unproven idea that local searchers would respond if search results were more closely tied to a specific country or region. While this idea has fervent boosters, it has yet to produce a dominant business model, despite (or perhaps because of) the linguistically and nationally fragmented landscape of Europe.
A lone example of such a site powering the local language pages of a global portal company is Paris-based Exalead SA, which does AOL.fr's local searches. Francois Bourdoncle, its president, says a "one-size-fits-all" approach to Web results works only if your query is not linked to your geographical location.
"But that's not the case when my grandmother is looking for 'health' - 'sante.'" Bourdoncle said search results can and should be tweaked by location-aware search algorithms to ensure that local health-care organizations that may be listed are those in the searcher's home country - not, for example, in Quebec instead of France.
But proponents clearly have a long row to hoe to convince portals and search companies that the issue deserves more focus. AOL France is Exalead's only customer in the generalized Web search market. Then again, Google appears to be doing this fairly successfully by way of its own country-specific versions, such as Google.de, Google.it and Google.fr.
Selling general search results to portals:In this category, Norway's Fast is the only European company meeting Google head-on.
Major portals distributing Fast's general search results include Lycos sites in Europe and the United States, T-Online in Germany, Tiscali.it in Italy and TerraLycos in Spain. In February, Overture said it would purchase Fast's Internet search unit.
Nick Hynes, president of Overture Europe, said Fast can claim an important victory in Europe - powering more portals than Google - even if total traffic numbers still favor Google individually.
Because searches are often a major revenue source for portals, Hynes said, "they do not want to train their users to go to another branded search site and lose that."