Google's Search Gold Mine Could Tap Out

It's not often that Google (GOOG) waves the white flag, but last month the search advertising giant capitulated in its attempt to enter the real estate search market.

In 2009, Google entered the property category with a specialized search offering. In major markets—including United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan—it used Google Maps as a starting point to place ads for houses and apartments. This feature amazed some and worried others, especially given Google's Street View feature, which enhanced listings by supplying eye-level images of posted properties. The move seemed promising at first blush, but Google turned out to have been late to the party. A number of specialized property websites had already developed powerful search tools to help property buyers.

People searching for places to live have complex purchase criteria and their search parameters quickly become quite specific. Google provided listings enhanced by mapping and images, but little more. Category specialists such as, Trulia, and Zillow in the U.S. and Rightmove in the U.K. made it possible to search real estate inventory, using algorithms to personalize and customize search that were superior to Google's generic, if free, offering—including its location-aware services.

Such setbacks have hardly affected Google's financial performance. Its 2010 financial results were stellar. Fourth-quarter results topped expectations, with $29.3 billion in revenue and a full-year profit of $8.5 billion—a 30 percent gain over the past year. The question is: How long will the good times last?

Google continues to generate the lion's share of its sales—over 96 percent—in search. Yes, the company has shown glimmers of financial diversity in mobility (Android), video advertising (YouTube), and browser software (Chrome). Each platform could help reduce the company's outsized dependence on search advertising. But search pays for everything Google does: Most of the company's offerings are free, such as YouTube and Chrome, and few generate ad sales. Pretty much nothing Google does other than search, AdWords, and AdSense turns a profit. For now, Google looks well-defended. Microsoft's (MSFT) Bing remains a distant second. Still, only 18 months ago Bing didn't exist. In December, Google served 69.4 percent of U.S. search results while Bing served 24.4 percent.

Is "Horizontal" Search Dated?

The bigger question, then, is how long "horizontal" search—search that "sees" a vast swath of the Web's 182 million sites—can remain an attractive business model.

Google's humbling in the property sector indicates that the real threat is not from such Goliaths as Microsoft, but from a myriad of Davids—specialized search engines tailored to conduct "vertical" search tasks. Examples of these include restaurant reservations by OpenTable (OPEN), job hunting at Simply Hired, and online travel with sites like Orbitz (OWW) and Priceline (PCLN). These sites are not promoted explicitly as "search engines," but that's what they are; they also happen to execute transactions. (Google tried transactional retail with Froogle, but the effort fizzled.)

Recently, Google has been making a further bid to control a vertical search category. In mid-2010, Google got serious about travel. Given that over half of travel sales are consummated online, Google wasted no time with DIY solutions. It went shopping and bid $700 million in cash to buy ITA Software, a Cambridge (Mass.)-based travel software company that was founded in 1996 by scientists at MIT to provide search services for airlines and other travel operators. If the acquisition goes through, Google's first commerce-oriented vertical search initiative would represent a serious assault on Orbitz, Expedia (EXPE), and Travelocity.

Google's property and travel forays signal an important shift in strategy.

Vertical search wins share and earns dollars. Horizontal search protects share, but earns little. Don't get me wrong: Hundreds of millions of Web users have an ongoing love affair with Google Search. Search Engine Land recently reported that nearly 90 percent of Web users were "satisfied" with their online search experiences. Dissatisfied users were scarce. User satisfaction, however, is not the issue. It's the viability of the business model. When people use Google to find a news item; a viral video showing a cat stuck in a tree; or a dictionary definition of a word, horizontal search is magnificently effective. The problem is that this kind of search is a loss leader. Real value lies in attracting users who search with serious and focused purchase intent. That's where the money is made.

Centralized Retail, Vertical Search

For example, there was a time when e-commerce as a category was highly fragmented. By sorting through a super-abundance of choice, search creates value. Now, Amazon (AMZN) and others have steadily consolidated online commerce. The more consolidated online retail becomes, the less useful Google is to retail. On its site, Amazon provides powerful forms of verticalized search: a simple retail query delivers a focused and relevant array of product results, enhanced by user reviews, third-party content, and e-commerce functions. There's a minimum of spam because Amazon provides a largely curated retail environment. In other words, why use Google when you can go straight to Amazon for a complete solution—both search and e-commerce?

Other search engines tailored to perform specialized search and transactions are building momentum. In corporate recruitment, there's Monster (MWW). Shoe shoppers have Zappos (AMZN) and Shoebuy. Music and movie fans have Apple's (AAPL) iTunes, while Netflix (NFLX) dominates movie rentals.

As online users grow more sophisticated, impatient, and demanding, horizontal search may prove steadily less compelling than vertical search—at least for the kinds of search advertisers will bid against and the kinds of queries that result in sales. If that's the case, Google must find ways to verticalize big search categories fast—or bring commercial potential offerings such as Android and YouTube to scale in a big hurry.

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