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Analysis The rumor hit the web early this month. Citing an anonymous source, TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington reported that Microsoft was putting together some sort of uber search team at its Silicon Valley outpost in Mountain View, California. Gathering at least twenty “rock star” developers - including 23-year-old wunderkind Sanaz Ahari – and putting them to work on a “next-generation” search platform, Microsoft was intent on challenging the web’s runaway search leader in its own backyard.

Two days later, a Microsoft VP denied the rumor. "When they get it done, I hope they'll send me a link to it so I'll know about it," Satya Nadella, corporate vice president of Microsoft's search and advertising platform group, reportedly said at the Search Marketing Expo in Seattle. But Arrington’s chit-chat raised an interesting question. Let's say Microsoft has put together this crack team of developers. Let’s imagine that Ahari and the gang managed to build that new-age engine, completely reinventing the notion of web search. Would it make a difference?

According to the latest study from Nielsen/Net Ratings, Google now handles 56.3 per cent of all US web searches, and its search traffic is growing at a rate of nearly 45 per cent a year. Microsoft just launched a brand new search engine in March of last year - the ho-hum Windows Live Search - and the company still controls less than nine per cent of the market, with year-over-year growth almost nonexistent.

When it comes to search, Google is so dominant, Microsoft is lucky to maintain the status quo. Even with a superior technology in place - and good luck making that happen - the company would be hard pressed to lure web users in a new direction.

"This isn't just a question of Google's technology. It's a question of their brand and overall market dominance," says Rebecca Lieb, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Watch, the ten-year-old website dedicated to all things search. "Google has become synonymous with search. It's part of the lexicon, like Xerox and Kleenex."

The same task faces Ask.com and Yahoo!, the only other Google competitors even remotely worthy of the name (AOL's search engine is driven by Google). Ask launched a brand new engine - Ask3D - the day after Arrington spread his Microsoft rumor, and Yahoo! recently introduced a new ad platform in support of its search engine. But neither shows any sign of stealing share from the market leader. Nielsen/NetRatings puts Yahoo!’s share at 21.5 per cent - little more than a third of Google’s – and Ask’s at a meager two per cent.

”Ask.com has done a terrific job with its new user interface and new algorithm, but it’s not enough to change people’s habits,” says Jupiter analyst Kevin Heisler. “The most brilliant thing Google has done is to make people think that their competition is just a click away. But the reality is that there are no competitors.”

Before Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel resigned his post last week, as company shareholders fumed over his $71.7m compensation package, there was a call to restructure the package and attach his compensation to the company's share of the search market. Talk about a pay cut. You might as well tie his compensation to Sisyphus and that rolling rock. Competitors can certainly challenge Google in other areas, but search is a lost cause.

Microsoft Windows Live logo

Microsoft's new Windows Live search engine launched in March of last year.

The China Analogy

In China, Google’s situation is reversed. By the end of 2006, says the China Internet Marketing Network Information Center, the Mountain View outfit handled less than 25.3 per cent of all Chinese web searches - and its share was shrinking rapidly. Baidu, a site born and bred in China, is the runaway leader at 62.1 per cent.

Based on a study by the research arm of Enquiro, a search engine marketing firm, Baidu’s dominance isn’t down to technology. It's down to brand. In a blind taste test carried out by the firm this month, the Chinese version of Google significantly outperformed its rival.

"With Google, the average search took around 30 seconds," says Gord Hotchkiss, Enquiro president and CEO. "With Baidu, it was up around a minute." But, for whatever reason, Chinese users prefer Baidu.

Google's dominance here in the States mirrors Baidu's in China. Most pundits agree that the Google search engine is superior to its American competitors, and other blind tests by Enquiro would seem to bear this out (though the company has yet to test the new Windows Live Search). But Google's hold on Western consciousness is so great, the question of quality is almost irrelevant.

"It's not so much Google's technology that's superior," says Jupiter analyst Heisler. "It's the brand and the aggregated audience."

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