STILL FEELING LUCKY?

Google’s dominance in search is nearing its peak

Google is stumbling. Earlier this month the company disappointed shareholders with underwhelming quarterly results. The amount of money it makes each time somebody clicks on an ad has steadily fallen for the past three years.

In response, according to Re/Code, Google CEO Larry Page has appointed insider Sundar Pichai to lead the bulk of Google’s product lines, freeing Page to focus on the “bigger picture.” Re/Code suggests that “the move seems born of Page’s concern—which is not new—that Google will become less innovative as it ages.”

He is right to be concerned. While Google remains comfortably profitable, its dominance, at least in search, appears to be approaching its peak.

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A question of answers

Google fields some 3.3 billion search queries each day. In June this year, people were searching Facebook 1 billion times a day, mostly to find other people. “There are a lot of questions that only Facebook can answer,” Mark Zuckerberg boasted in an earnings call earlier this year. (Facebook’s Q3 results are due tomorrow.)

Apple, Amazon, and other, smaller contenders are also prodding at Google’s armor. None of them alone can topple a company that takes one in every three dollars (paywall) spent on internet advertising. But their combined power is putting bigger and bigger dents in Google’s defenses. Facebook’s emphasis is on content and connections. Amazon thinks it can corner product searches (paywall). Twitter already receives well in excess of 1.5 billion searches every day. Apple’s latest operating system for desktop computers, Yosemite, uses Microsoft’s Bing to power its new search function, which allows users to scour the web from within their desktop.

Qwant, a French search engine, displays results from the web and social media on one page. Specific facts can be found on Wolfram Alpha, which can instantly tell you the population of New York in 1886. Privacy-conscious searchers can visit DuckDuckGo, which does not track its users.

Even Google chairman Eric Schmidt admits—probably to deflect allegations of anticompetitive behavior—that Google is not always the first stop for internet users searching for information.

Fighting on many fronts

Other fronts are opening up as well. Online, ad blockers are rising in popularity. Amazon’s new Fire Phone is a physical search engine disguised as a smartphone. (It’s a flop, but that doesn’t mean Amazon will give up.) Facebook is building the infrastructure to allow app-developers to link to things within other apps, which could form the basis of a useful search engine for the mobile web, which remains chaotic. Google’s dominance in search is also under threat from regulators, especially in privacy-conscious Europe.

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Still, Google’s sales will continue to rise as the internet penetrates ever deeper into day-to-day life. The company is throwing money at things like pushing its mobiles in emerging markets, innovations such as drones and robots, and long shots including driverless cars and quantum computing. It has plenty of cash to invest in keeping ahead of the pack in search, which remains its core money-maker: ads make up 91% of its revenue.

But just as Microsoft went from being a leader to a laggard in the internet era, so Google may find it hard to adapt to the rapidly shifting ways in which people interact with their devices. And that’s why Larry Page urgently needs to free up time to consider the “bigger picture.”

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