It may well be that Google has the internet search market tied up for now but, according to a Yahoo executive, the fight for control of this sector is barely underway.
"We're three steps into a marathon," said Bradley Horowitz, Yahoo's vice president of product strategy, in an interview at the CommuinicAsia exhibition in Singapore.
Google was the top US search engine in May, based on the latest figures from Nielsen NetRatings. It handled 49 percent of internet searches, and saw the number of searches conducted on its site increase by 32 percent from the same period last year.
But Yahoo and Microsoft are gaining ground, Nielsen NetRatings said. Yahoo handled 23 percent of searches in May, answering 34 percent more queries than it did last year. Microsoft's MSN Search was third, handling 11 percent of internet searches in May. MSN gained the most ground, however, increasing the number of queries it processed by 42 percent.
Determining which company dominates internet search in the future will depend on pushing the limits of search technology. The search engine that returns the best results will help determine who comes out on top.
Current search technology is largely based on a method of ranking web pages that Google pioneered. This method examines links between different sites to determine which are the most relevant to a search query. "We'll never know enough about the page looking at in isolation to do relevance and ranking. You've got to step back and look at the link structure, who's linking to who," Horowitz said.
While this approach will remain important, it will only take search technology so far. "We've been stuck in that phase as an industry for seven or eight years," Hororwitz said.
Future advances in search technology must handle subjective queries, such as where to eat or what to buy, Horowitz said. Yahoo calls these "transactional queries", versus the "navigational queries" that take users one from one website to another. The company is betting on social search, a technique that draws on users' input, to provide results for transactional queries.
This is an area of strength for Yahoo, which has signed up millions of registered users through its various offerings, including Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Messenger, photo-sharing site Flickr, and social-bookmarking site Del.icio.us. The company hopes to draw on these users, and their networks of trusted contacts, to provide answers to subjective queries.
"Anything that requires human expertise, where you would value the opinion of your neighbour, your friend, your mentor, people you trust in different contexts - that's the real opportunity," Horowitz said.
Because many of these queries are centred around purchases, they will be a lucrative source of advertising revenue. "They are the most valuable kind of queries," he said.