Search is not a zero cost switch

New search startups come and go, but the ever-present meme seems to be the “zero switching cost” between an established competitor and a newcomer. In the old days this was certainly true, as any user could simply update your browser bookmarks or homepage, replacing WebCrawler with Excite or AltaVista. As the web grew search became an integrated component of large websites, networks, and the desktop software powering the entire experience.

Google is spending billions to integrate its search products into the Apple operating system, new Dell PCs, MySpace, Firefox, and more. Google commands about a 50% share of the U.S. toolbar search market according to comScore. Google powers search on sites with lots of pages such as newspaper, university, and personal websites. A developer platform further diversifies these sources of traffic, turning the long tail of search origination into site revenue.

If a new search engine comes online they not only have to launch a compelling destination site and service, they will also have to unseat the entrenched sources of traffic (and revenue) spread across the entire technology landscape. Google gained existing user traffic not just from Excite and AltaVsita, but also the Thunderstone site searchers, Yahoo! toolbar users, and anyone who bucked the trend of the default pre-installed homepage and tools.