Your guide to alternative search engines


iMedia Connection

New categories

There’s a search engine so popular that even Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionary have accepted its transformation from a noun to a verb. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? (Hint: It starts with a “G,” ends with an “oogle.”)

Hitwise recently reported the hardly surprising stat that Mountain View-based Google in April received nearly 70 percent of all U.S. searches. With numbers like that, you might wonder why the entrepreneurs behind new search startups even bother getting dressed in the morning.

It turns out that not only are the founders of new search companies hatching schemes to go up against Google, but in the process, they’re also inventing entirely new categories of search — some of which can, in turn, create entirely new marketing opportunities.

Many of the new search engines rely on sharing information, either among users in the case of social search, or among developers as in open source search. Two other search categories focus more on borrowing than sharing. Metasearch takes advantage of searches conducted by third-party engines, and visual search delivers the results of various searches in a more intuitive, eye-catching format.

Here’s a primer for the new search age.

Social search

What it is
Social search is the broadest of the new search categories. Editor-In-Chief Danny Sullivan, a search engine analyst for the last 12 years, defines social search as “Any kind of search that’s involving humans in some way and, in particular, humans that have a network of friends or associates.”

Google Vice President Marissa Mayer in January described this type of search to VentureBeat as attempting to “leverage a social connection to try and get a piece of information that would be better than what you’d come up with on your own.”

At its most basic level, social search looks something like the model of recommendation. Results for a book or CD search on Amazon return with a note that “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” Amazon tracks user behavior to generate suggestions that might help guide other purchasers.

More sophisticated social search sites aim to combine these overarching recommendation engines with social networking. Delver, one of the newest arrivals to the social search scene, combines user information (name, email, social network profiles, etc.) with search requests to tailor its results to the individual preferences and habits of the person conducting the search.

More established social search sites such as Digg and rely on users to rank news stories or blog posts to give visitors an overview of the moment’s most popular conversations across the web. Sites such as Mahalo pay users to filter through search results and eliminate fluff.

Who’s doing it
Delver (currently in private beta), Digg,, Eurekster, FriendFeed, Mahalo, Mechanical Zoo, StumbleUpon

Why you should care
Social search sites can offer real value to marketers. Though direct marketing and advertising opportunities remain limited across social search sites, these engines allow marketers to easily track user communities and conversations, producing knowledge that can ultimately drive traffic to brand sites.

Sullivan points to digital marketing company 10e20’s campaign for Virgin Vacations as the archetypal social search success story. Virgin Vacations produced a text and video story about the world’s best subway systems. Thanks to a little viral marketing, users of Digg, and StumbleUpon picked up on the story, resulting in a huge increase in traffic to


What it is
As the name implies, metasearch engines simply search other search sites, either combining the results into one list or displaying multiple lists on the same web page. These engines provide an overview of search results across multiple sites with the aim of helping users select the most useful search results. 

Who’s doing it
Clusty, Dogpile, Mamma, Metacrawler, Vivisimo

Why you should care
Maybe you shouldn’t. According to Sullivan, where marketers are concerned, “you can’t do anything with metasearch.” That is, anything other than employ traditional text or banner ads.

Open source search

What it is
Think of it in terms of the SATs: open source search is to Google what free speech is to censorship. Founders of open source search sites make their code available to other developers to use and, ideally, improve upon. Without the cumbersome barriers of licensing fees or other limitations, open search sites allow for disparate developers to work together to return better search results, faster.

Open source search developed as a direct response to companies such as Google that keep their algorithms chained in tightly protected Silicon Valley dungeons. It’s Google’s algorithm that ranks its search results and decides which items appear at the coveted top of a search page.

Proponents of open source search say the algorithms of Google and others are akin to an editorial judgment call and insist the public should be apprised of the types of judgments being made.

Who’s doing it
Grub (owned by Wikia), Lucene, Nutch, Sphinx

Why you should care
You probably shouldn’t. At least not yet. But don’t write off open source search engines just because they’re a brand new search niche, warns Sullivan, who predicts they may prove valuable in the coming years. Though “there’s nothing for a marketer to mess with on open source right now… it’s going to change so much,” he says.

Visual search

What it is
Visual searches fall into two broad categories. Until recently, visual search referred only to image searches. Traditional searches for images have long functioned the same as text searches; search engines simply scanned the web for keywords in the text tags that accompany JPEGs, GIFs and other image types. More advanced visual image search engines focus on technology that can recognize colors or patterns within an image itself, rather than on just the surrounding text.

Lately, however, visual search has come to mean something entirely different. Visual search now more often refers to the visual presentation of search results. Instead of being presented with a text-based list of search results, consumers using visual search sites now receive their results in the form of snapshots or makeshift spreadsheets of the web pages on which their search results appear. (Try searching for your name on sites such as to see what we mean.) The aim of visual search is to prevent users from wasting their time and clicking onto parked or irrelevant web pages.

Who’s doing it
Kartoo, Searchme, Quintura, Viewzi

Why you should care
Visual searches offer an interesting spin on the humdrum presentation of traditional search results. Right now marketing opportunities on visual search sites are relegated to old-school text and banner ads, but marketers who keep an eye on the evolution of these sites may find themselves at an advantage over the long term. That’s because visual search sites will likely require digital agencies to rethink their web design choices according to how their pages might be displayed differently on each of the disparate visual search sites.

And now the bad news for the new players in the alternative search engine market. Behind Google’s 70 percent market share in April lagged Yahoo with approximately 21 percent of all U.S. searches, MSN with 6 percent of searches, and with 4 percent of searches. Combined, the other 45 search engines Hitwise tracks ran just 1 percent of all domestic searches.

Translation: Despite the innovation taking place in the search market, the startups have a long way to go to catch up with even Google’s strongest 48 competitors.

But stay tuned, says Sullivan. The search market is definitely something you want to keep an eye on.

He adds that if these sites start to show a substantial amount of traffic, that’s when you want to start taking a closer look.

Leah Messinger is a freelance writer.


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