There was a pre-search-engine age. It’s hard to conceive of now, but there was. Even in the early days of search engines, when Ask Jeeves, Yahoo, and Excite still competed for the crown, I can remember web portals. Pages that I’d start at, in the “computer room” at school, to navigate and explore the web not by searching, but by clicking on organized links.
In the beginning, there were web portals. The internet was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.
These were already the death throes of a previous internet age. Search engine dominance, and specifically Google dominance, has been the norm for this kind of journey for decades now. It’s all that many SEOs have ever known.
But what comes next?
People have talked for a long time about existential threats to Google’s dominance, and often, implicitly, by extension, SEO. You’ll have heard the claims that Amazon or YouTube are now preferred engines for certain kinds of search, or that Google is going to struggle against the unique technological advantages of Apple, AI chatbots, the unique regional advantages of Baidu, or the unique format advantages of TikTok. Or maybe you’ve even heard that people prefer to restrict their searches only to Reddit. Even mainstream outlets are suggesting that Google search quality may be in decline.
This post is not about the health of Google search as a product, or about the implications of improving AI products for your SEO strategy right now. (Although, I know of at least one post for this blog being written on that topic!) Instead, this post is about which of these threats, if any, actually stand a chance of unseating Google’s dominance.
In what capacity?
To ask what might take Google’s role, we must first ask what role it is that we’re interested in. Google is many things, and possibly part of the reason Google’s doom is so often predicted is that we’re not always talking about the same specific things.
What exactly is it that search engines as a genre, and then Google, have dominated? Perhaps we might mean:
The place you’d start to find a web page on a site you’ve not yet discovered? For example, you might not know yet what the best site is for a given topic.
The place you’d start to find a web page on a site you’re already familiar with? Perhaps you’re searching on Google hoping to see a result from Reddit, or from Wikipedia.
The place you’d start to answer a given question? So maybe you’d be happy with a non-web result as long as it answered your question.
The place you’d start to complete a task? So, again, the best answer might not be a web page at all.
The truth is that the present reality blurs these use cases to the point of it not being useful to separate them. But for Google to be replaced by something that maintains this close alignment, it’d have to be a close peer competitor.
The obvious pretenders
There are two that come to mind, as similarly resourced companies trying similar things via a similar method (a web index): Bing and Apple.
I don’t want to be dismissive of Bing, or of the value of someone — anyone — else maintaining a similar enough competitor to keep Google somewhat honest. Although it’s often mocked in SEO circles, Bing in reality is not so many years behind Google at any given point. But, really, it’s hard to see the events that could lead to Bing supplanting Google at its own game. It’s just too similar for people to make the switch. One possibility based on recent news is for Bing to become less similar, pursuing one of the precise alternatives I’ll cover below – but more on that when we get to it.
Apple, on the other hand, is doing something similar, but with some unique advantages. I must credit my former colleague (and 2023 Mozcon speaker) Tom Anthony who has been very prescient around Apple’s moves in this space, going so far as to backward-engineer Apple search results that weren’t supposed to be publicly available. Apple can do things that Bing can’t, leveraging Apple’s app ecosystem and device integration to provide search results that skip certain steps of a user journey in ways that Google cannot, or will not.
The trouble with Apple as a Google search competitor is obvious, though. The unique advantages, as I said, are to do with apps and hardware. Apple devices are expensive — prohibitively so. (This varies by market – in the US, with the base price of a phone contract being so high, iPhones are more palatable and have a notably higher market share than in Europe, for example. But, that’s a topic for another day – either way…). There is a fairly hard cap on the market share of a search engine that is only superior on high-end devices, and not only that, but ones from a specific brand.
So could Apple take a big chunk out of Google? Yes, it may already quietly have done so with various iOS changes pushing the prevalence of Apple’s own search results. But totally replace Google? Very unlikely.
You can say the same for regional competitors like Baidu, Yandex, or Naver. These may well consistently beat out Google in their own backyards, and perhaps even spread to nearby countries and regions, but it’s hard to see them beating Google in its own backyard(s).
Revolution, not evolution
So what about competitors that replace Google by doing something totally different, to solve the same problems? The reality is that a lot of the problems we solve right now with web search, are not actually well suited to web search. The fact that something like a Google Home will often answer your questions by essentially reading out a featured snippet is a symptom of Google’s dominance, not a symptom of web search being well suited to that use case. Even Google themselves recognize this, and betray that in tools like Google Translate, clocks, calculators, and so on, embedded in SERPs. So who might the more disruptive threats be?
One name that came up a lot in 2022 is TikTok, and I’d point you to this excellent post by Lidia Infante on this very blog. To sum up her argument, TikTok can take market share from Google, but it can’t replace Google entirely. TikTok is too specialized (in video format and certain topic areas), and the quality assurance is too weak. So, again, we have a competitor that chips away at Google without replacing it.
Then of course, most recently, SEOs of Twitter have been right to point out that for many queries, ChatGPT produces better responses than Google. Take this example, “excel query for extraction the domain name from a url”:
The ChatGPT result above is far more informative and easy to follow. However, like TikTok, this only works for certain things. ChatGPT is not a web search engine:
So you have to be willing to abandon the premise that your result should be a web page. Which, in this context, comes down to: do you trust an answer if you don’t know who wrote it? ChatGTP and similar technologies have access to “knowledge” sourced from the web, like Google, but they don’t cite a source. Indeed, it would be immensely difficult to trace the source of their various claims, some of which seem quite… odd.
Similar to TikTok, then, this is something I might prefer to Google for a specific kind of query. In this particular case, the kind of query that previously took me to StackOverflow. But I’m not going to ask it for mortgage advice.
I noted above that Bing is rumored to be integrating ChatGPT with its own search product. This enlarges the threat to Google in that it makes this technology more accessible, but really, the same qualms apply – there are many, many queries for which this is not helpful. Even if Bing can hybridize these technologies into a “best of both” of traditional web search and NLP, well – that’s already the road Google is going down.
The other challenge with this “ChatAI as search” model is an economic one. Google and Amazon have both already come to the conclusion that the type of queries asked of their personal assistant devices are barely, if at all, economic to run – because of the limited monetization opportunities for purely informational queries. Perhaps my distinction above, about what we mean by replacing Google, is very relevant here – some of our use cases of Google as a search engine are actually just a loss leader for others. As such, perhaps this bundling of disparate uses is necessary.
The King is dea… wait, wait, he’s still breathing
Number of explicit core search queries powered by search engines in the United States as of January 2022 – via Statista
Ultimately, these threats look set to chip away at Google, not replace it. At worst, a broad monopoly will be sliced up and shrunk, and that doesn’t feel like any great evil. For SEOs, we should be aware of these new search engines, and these new “search engines”, and of the risks attached to being locked into the Google ecosystem. But don’t forget the chart above: the original pie is not going anywhere. The Google SEO game is still not a bad game to be playing.