Is Google in Decline?

Three reasons why Google may not forever be king

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The name Google has become so synonymous with the idea of a digital query, that the company's name was incorporated as a verb into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006. But though Google still holds a 68 percent share of digital searches, chinks in the Palo-Alto behemoth's armor have been begun to show. The New York Times just published a huge report on JC Penney's gaming of the engine's algorithms over the holiday season to boost their ranking to the top of many searches. Meanwhile, Facebook continues to surge as a possible competitor for overall web power, gathering ever more details about its  users. And news continues to trickle in about Bing's rising marketshare, too. Then there's Jeffrey F. Rayport's assertion in the most recent Business Week that Google's very conception of an all-encompassing search--an idea that many share about the nature of online searches--and of search engines as omni-portals into many digital worlds might be outdated. Here are three areas in which Google may finally be beginning to show weakness.

Google Might Lose Out With Specialized Searches
  Rayport's article notes the difference between Google's "horizontal" search strategy (wide-net searches that sift through the web's 182 million sites regardless of subject), which differs from sites that focus on more specified, "vertical" web searches with a smaller range or focus: job sites, like Simply Hired, travel sites like Orbitz and Priceline, or even what is essentially a commercial aggregation site in "These sites are not promoted explicitly as 'search engines,'" Rayport says, "but that's what they are; they also happen to execute transactions." He says that Google has quickly attempted to jump on board by investing $700 million in ITA Software, a travel software company based in Massachussetts. While "horizontal" searches are much beloved, "real value lies in attracting users who search with serious and focused purchase intent," he argues.

Google's Search Is Vulnerable To Gaming The potential for users to actively influence Google's search ranking was first brought up by the "Google-bombing," trend a few years ago, where people used links (a significant statistic Google uses to rank webpages for various search terms) to rig searches. These were mostly used for humorous purposes: "miserable failure" yielded George Bush's White House home page as a result and "greatest living American" brought users to Stephen Colbert's.

But it's a lot less funny when a commercial giant like J.C. Penney rigs Google's results in its favor, as David Segal alleges the company did his legnthy article in the times. Before Google was alerted of the trend for example, Segal reports that J.C. Penney had an average ranking of 1.3 for over 59 search terms, at or near the top for such searches as "'skinny jeans,' 'home decor,' 'comforter sets,' 'furniture' and dozens of other words and phrases, from the blandly generic ('tablecloths') to the strangely specific ('grommet top curtains')," all examples of what Segal describes as "black hat optimization." (Those who question the significance of this only need to look at the study Segal cites that says that 34 percentage of people click on the first result, double that of those that click on the number two).

For those who are caught by Google, the punishments can be severe--one can even be banned from search results. But that's not necessarily stopping companies.

Competition From Other Companies
  Much has been made of the stiff competition Google faces from other companies, notably Facebook. While Facebook's recent 50 billion dollar investment by Goldman Sachs still pales in comparison to Google's hard numbers, James Altucher at the Wall Street Journal explains that, "assuming Facebook goes public in a year, it's right where Google was--but with faster growth. Facebook is a mini-Internet," he says, which in some ways plays to its advantage. The New York Times' DealBook explains how Google's social media ventures have "floundered" while Facebook has "begun to direct a great deal of Internet traffic of its own." Bing, the search engine from Microsoft that was created to rival Google, has seen its share of search related queries rise to around 27 percent, while it's only a year and a half old, says Dan Mitchell at Venture Beat.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.