This question has been riling up the search marketing world. We are all afraid of a dominant engine, but right now, it looks like there is only big player - Google.
France doesn't like the idea of an American run company dominating search (and neither does the rest of the EU), so they've put around 100 million euros into a competitor. (Losers with their nose stuck up their asses in my opinion. Can I get 100 million euro's too? I'll become a French citizen with the stupid accent? Pretty please?)
Either way, there are hundreds if not thousands of other search engines looking to compete with Google and unseat them by beating on the technology front. Visual search, semantic search etc. ("What do those terms mean again?").
Nitin Karandikar wrote an interesting column over at Altsearchengines.com on the three reasons that Google wouldn't easily be unseated as the market leader.
1) Google's already superior algorithm - Google has been spending millions (if not billions) of dollars tweaking their search engine. Noone else has that experience.
2) Sites are already ready to deal with Google. They therefore help Google get better optimization of quality content.
3) User inertia - your average non-techie user uses Google now, and they aren't going to be quick to change. You are going to need a significant userbase of first movers to get it going, and build from there...
Here's my comments (Nitin is obviously much more well versed than I am in Alternate search engines)
1) Google's superior search mechanism - I think that search engines still have a long way to go. Right now they are just dumb bots that can't figure out user intention. On my average deep search for specific information - even using google's operands (Yahoo, where are your's, I don't even know them!), I still have trouble finding the right information. For example, searching for google operands doesn't get me the page with all of that information on Google. I've used the site search etc.
(I turned on a friend who uses google for homework research - usually called plagiarizing, and she was having trouble finding specific data on google. I turned her on to Chacha, and she is a rabid fan.)
There are many times that the search doesn't help me. I think that the first company that makes visual search - or assessing user search intention easier, gets enough traction for it, has a chance to unseat Google. Not really, but my point is that Google's search algorithm is not that great, it's just the perception that it's great. In my opinion, it's passable.
Google is taking risky steps by pushing out personal search and universal search, as ways to figure out a better way to provide answers to users. I still think that there's a chance for someone else.
2) Sites are already ready to deal with Google- I don't think that is a big deal. Yes, it helps Google get a better algorithm, but it's a constant fight. SEO companies try to arbitrarily make their site the most valuable, and search engines try stop those cutting corners. The bottom line is most SEO companies are cutting corners, and I don't think the user is always served by the best search result - just the most relevant that Google could figure out.
It is true that Google - through their algorithm trying to catch every SEO trick has forced most SEO's to do much more white-hat stuff, but all of the search engines benefit from better content. It helps everyone.
3) User inertia - This is probably the biggest issue. So far, many big companies have tried to change user inertia in big ways. I think there are a number of reasons that Google has changed user inertia, and I think that there have been a number of high profile stabs at competitors that tried different ways of changing habit's that failed.
1) Perception - You need a rabid mass of fans before anyone starts saying "xxx search engine is better than yzz search engine". For example, Yahoo and AOL used to have a large start on the market because they were the start pages. However, Google gained alot of traction in the tech world as the best solution - and that perception quickly spread.
In blind testing, Yahoo has better search satisfaction than Google! (Regardless, Yahoo is still perceived as the worse engine.)
Once people started going "ga ga google", the perception became that Google is the best, which quickly eroded market share. Yahoo and Microsoft simply can't compete with the perception right now.
2) Partnerships / being in front of people - Google powered Yahoo and AOL's search, which boosted their brand. Yahoo had since played catchup (by buying both two natural search engines and a paid searh platform - and focused more on human editing - which is their strength, rather than just the algorithm itself.
Additionally,my theory is that Google has gained a huge amount of traffic through their partnerships. Their first partnerships with AOL and Yahoo brought them to the forefront. However, their continuing relationship with Mozilla and Opera - offering Google as default search engines, and giving the open source foundation money, as well as powering sites search with google mini's, has really made them a household name.
So anyone who wants to win the search engine war needs to have both "branding" -
1)a growing amount of people seeing the new companies search platform and becoming familiar with it
2) rabid fans promoting the site as being the best (Perception) - and having that spread almost virally.
as well as "direct marketing" - allowing people to take that motivation and use it to test the search engine.
Here are a couple of companies that have unsuccessfully tried to get into the search door using direct marketing or branding:
1) A9.com - Amazon's search engine. Amazon ran a promotion a while ago that offered anyone who used a9 a certain amount of times per month a discount on amazon products. This obviously didn't go anywhere, as they haven't continued it. - no perception of "we've got a better engine", it's more of a "we need to bribe you to test our engine"
2) Microsoft live - They offered free prizes to people who tried the search in terms of software... that also failed horribly, as far as I know the only people I know who did that were geeks who were trying to game the system! - no viral marketing there.
3) Ask.com - interesting idea, spectacular lack of skill in implementation, and terrible choice of medium. We all know about Ask.com's brandning campaign across the UK. As soon as I saw I thought, these guys either have way too much money to blow, or they absolute morons (or their ad agency... or both). It turns out that they were absolute morons, and the $100 million dollars went to waste, and they are now focusing on the african American niche.
There was no call to action on this... no-one is going to use ask to search when seeing the billboard. So even the people that "got" the idea, had no motivation to try it.
Besides for that, the campaign really sucked. The ad wasn't direct, when it was, it was taking a hit at your intelligence, by suggesting that Google's results sucked - which people didn't believe, and most people probably wouldn't really appreciate the line.
If Ask had really wanted to succeed, they should have done online rich media buys, and shown qualitatively how they are different than Google, and encouraging people to try the search results. This would have allowed people to actually start changing their habits, and made a much bigger dent in search habits (and minimized the one on their pockets.
Sidenote: (I don't like the IAC anyways, I think they are stuck up jerks... just like the stupid frenchies that think they'll beat Google. Oh,and the frenchies are pretending that they're not in competition. Get your balls together, be honest that you are horrified that it's a non-french product that has so much market share, and go start an anti-google campaign! I am sure that your fellow french heads-up-your-ass buddies will nationalistically stop using Google. Just be straight about it. Yeah, I'm gonna get slammed by this in the blogosphere, haha. Oops, my ego is overestimating my value. Sorry guys ... sneaks back into hole :) Back onto the search engine rant...).
An interesting success (to be?)...
Snap.com started a couple of years ago, the brainchild of one of the founders in Overture. They figured that they had a way that they could save users time - and be a better search engine than google, without actually competing with the algorithm. Many people would click on a result, and then if they got an annoying result, they would click the back button. Snap originated a light technology that would preview the search results. (You can follow their progression by their press releases, makes for an interesting read).
However, at this point in time, they've really given up on the search game, in fact, they don't even have a search engine anymore. Instead they are focusing on using the preview pane technology to power sites "preview function". They've also initiated an ad exchange where they display contextually relevant links in the preview "popup" (for lack of a better word).
In a roundabout way, if they ever decide to get back to search, they would have a database of people using their services already under a revshare program, people would already be familiar with their brand and the (hopefully) more superior user experience (although I find it annoying).
I hope they leverage that to compete with Google's customized search engine that splits the profits through adsense.
There are a number of sites that power blog search, and I think that is a method of gaining familiarity, afterwards, they need to work on the perception.
Good luck to all of the google killer wannabee's.