Thinking Tech

Is Google untouchable?

Is Google untouchable?

Posting in Government

As search startup Blekko steps up to bat, a question springs to mind: What, honestly, do its founders expect to happen?

In precisely one way, Google is just like the post office: everybody uses it, benefits from it, and at the same time loves to complain about it. Sure, we occasionally stray to FedEx and UPS, or Bing and Yahoo, but for most of our important work, we stick to what we know.

Google's ubiquity is an obvious curse for aspiring search companies, but seemingly every year, a new entrant tries to recast Google dominance as arrogance and deafness. These companies, say they, can adapt to changing needs faster than the Lumbering Giant of Mountain View.

The latest startup forged in this mold is called Blekko, which launched today. Their promise is specific, simple, and resonant, once you cut through the jargon.

blekko is a better way to search the web by using slashtags. slashtags search only the sites you want and cut out the spam sites. use friends, experts, community or your own slashtags to slash in what you want and slash out what you don't.

Better search? OK! Less spam? Please! Slashtags? Coo--wait, what?

a slashtag is a tool to filter search results. rather than searching the entire web, a slashtag allows you to search just the sites you want searched.

The appeal of Blekko, in a nutshell, is that its search sources are curated, and can be controlled by users on a search-by-search basis. The rise of spammy content mills and question-answering sites can make certain Google searches time consuming, with echoey, redundant results that can be very difficult to parse. Blekko can narrow your searched sites to, say, tech review sites, or people-finding sites, or government sites--whatever you choose, or other have already chosen for you, via pre-developed slashtags.

That's Blekko's million dollar idea. Or more accurately, $24 million idea: this engine's VC investors include savvy individuals like Marc Andreessen and Ron Conway, which has helped its buzz graduate to a dull roar. But do Blekko's investors and workers truly believe that they can topple, or even meaningfully shake, Google? Probably not.

One doesn't need to look very far into the past for an instructive parallel. Cuil launched in July of 2008 with the help of a handful of former Googlers and over $30 million in VC cash, promising an even larger search database than Google, and more convenient display of search results. Its launch was a spectacular flop, its traffic dropped off almost immediately, and two years later, the company closed its doors.

Blekko's launch has so far gone a bit better, which is to say that the service doesn't display random pornographic pictures to its users. Furthermore, its execution is simply better: where Cuil's search results were off mark to the point of uselessness, Blekko's are good, and with slashtags, even better. Cuil tried to compete with Google head on, challenging their search index size and page formatting. Blekko, at least, has some new ideas.

Even so, it's hard to imagine trenchant Google users jumping ship for one neat feature, and for general search purposes, Blekko seems, at best, up to the task. Its slashtag feature, while compelling, is merely cool, and feels more of a Google Labs experimental feature than basis for an entire company. Accordingly, if Blekko is to succeed, it'll likely do so not as a standalone service, or a Google Killer, but as a part of something else--perhaps a well heeled Google competitor like Microsoft Bing, or even Google itself. (See Plink.)

But for Blekko or its investors to accept a rigid choice between joining a giant or dying in obscurity would raise an alarming question: Is a Google search competitor even conceivable? Yahoo's legacy is failing to carry it forward anymore, and Bing, despite billions of dollars in investment by Microsoft, is still a marginal player. Small startups like Blekko can innovate in small ways, but Google--far from the lumbering beast its competitors may say it is--iterates constantly, and could simply replicate competitors' functionality with yet another subtle revamp.

This leaves Google, at least for the foreseeable future, untouchable. I sincerely hope Blekko proves me wrong.

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure