Given the immense cost of developing search technology, launching a start-up in recent years to challenge Google has seemed a Quixotic quest.
But could Google itself have opened the door to allow another competitor to flourish in the search space?
“Going back to 2000, Highway 101 is littered with the remains of search startups, and on the other hand, you’ve got Microsoft spending spending and losing billions of dollars to try to make inroads,” said Rich Skrenta, who as the CEO of a search start-up trying to challenge the mighty Goog, knows exactly the magnitude of trying to challenge Google in search.
But after seeing well-funded search startups like Cuil go belly up, Skrenta’s startup, Blekko, is increasingly confident its destiny will be different. Blekko has been on a tear in the first few months of 2012, seeing its traffic grow from about 1.6 million monthly visitors in December, to a projected 5.1 million visitors in April.
“I would say that what we’ve achieved so far is the furthest any search startup has gotten in 12 years,” Skrenta told me the other day. “Nobody has gotten close to this. It’s sort of a ridculously hard problem.”
To be sustainable, Skrenta says Blekko probably needs to have 10 times the traffic is has now. That means Blekko still has a long way to go. Still, the numbers he posted last week in a company blog represent “a nice jump,” he said.
Skrenta points to a number of possible reasons why more people seem to be using Blekko, which bills itself as the “anti-spam search engine.”
One is promotion. Besides big events like South By Southwest, Blekko has been spreading the word through industry events, and not just at tech shows. Librarians, who Skrenta said love to use Blekko’s “slash tag” filtering system to discover higher quality results, have been big allies.
“We do every single librarian convention,” Skrenta said. “We take boxes of fliers and the librarians take them back and leave them on the library desks, and that’s been amazingly effective for us.”
But it’s hard not to notice that the jump in Blekko’s traffic, which was also reported by Search Engine Land, has coincided with Google’s January move to package its search results with content from its Google+ social network – a change Google dubbed “Search Plus Your World.”
Skrenta said he noticed a change between people’s attitudes about the quality of search at this year’s SXSW compared to last year. Last year, people questioned why a startup like Blekko was even necessary. This year, Skrenta said people were much more receptive, because they felt much less satisfied with the quality of their search experience.
It’s simplistic to say Search Plus Your World, which has been reviled in tech circles, is the reason people are moving to Blekko, which weighs its search index according to the authority of sources rather than the traditional method of using links to judge authority, which can allow SEOs to influence search results. If people are growing less satisfied with search, it’s likely more to do with the fact that what turns up in a search result these days is more and more a highly commercialized version of what people would actually like to find.
This is a particular problem with travel and health-related searches, where Blekko often produces a cleaner, less contrived – if less polished – set of results that often feel like the Google of 10 years ago.
One thing that seems certain is that search, where Google and Bing/Yahoo have hit a stalemate where Google has about two-thirds of U.S. search traffic, and the Microsoft partnership roughly 30 percent, is going to get a lot more interesting in the next few months.
Facebook is trying to build a decent search engine that would leverage its human connections in a way that Google, even with the Google+ data in Search Plus Your World, would have a difficult time matching. And if Blekko keeps building its traffic, that could certainly make things more interesting.
Blekko’s growth is not necessarily bad news for Google, which is facing an antitrust probe by the Federal Trade Commission, and would no doubt love to convince regulators in the U.S. and Europe that it is not an overly dominant monopolist.
I couldn’t help but notice that none other than a Google spokesman in Washington tweeted the Search Engine Land post about Blekko’s growth. Who knows? Perhaps the FTC will start using Blekko too.