Great Vertical Search Engine

Bianca Munz | 30 May 2018

The search engine that beat Google and still lost
The comedy writer Terry Pratchett, in his Discworld series, had the wizards in Discworld’s premier college of magic create an ‘omniscope’, which is sort of a combined television broadcast and Internet. The problem of course, is that because the omniscope is capable of seeing everything at every time, it’s very hard to find any specific place and time, and the viewer drowns in information overload.

What Pratchett was satirising, is Internet search engines, especially Google. The global giant of the Internet, having beaten off all challengers, is many people’s first choice when they have to search for anything from the weather, to a favourite song, to an online casino game, and everything in between. But the problem is that Google uses largely horizontal searches.

Look for ‘cheapest places to live in Mongolia’, and Google will return a lot of results containing ‘cheapest’, ‘places’ and ‘Mongolia, but not necessarily in the order or phrasing that is any use to the reader. Of course, the results containing the phrase ‘cheapest places to live in Mongolia’ are in there, but they’re hidden by all the irrelevant results.

To get more useful results for this search, you need a search engine capable of doing vertical searches - in other words, only returning results that include the keywords in the conjunction that answers the search request. A vertical-search site cross-references all the parameters in your search and comes up with more accurate and helpful results.

And that’s exactly what married computer programmers Shivaun Moeran and Adam Raff created with Foundem, which they launched in 2006. The vertical-search site has proven time and again that it produces more helpful, accurate results than Google, and as a result, the global giant appears to have done its utmost to suppress it.

The couple has battled for more than a decade; first to prove that Google had deliberately changed its search algorithm to bury results featuring Foundem, as it viewed the search site as competition, and second, having established that interference, to do something about it.

An unbeatable force in the industryTen-year Battle Brings EU Vindication

When Raff and Moeran launched Foundem in 2006, the site was performing well in test searches for specific products, using various attributes like colour, location, price and materials as filters. Foundem results would generally appear on the front pages of Google searches, because Foundem gave the most helpful interpretation of the searchers’ keywords, and then directed them to sites where they’d find what they’re looking for.

Within two days of launch, however, after a spurt of opening traffic, Foundem visitors fell off drastically. Suddenly, the Foundem results were only showing up 12, 64 or even 170 pages into a Google listing, effectively burying them from all but the most tenacious searchers.

Foundem still ranked high on other search engines, but if had almost disappeared from Google. This sparked a more-than-a-decade quest by Moeran and Raff, studying Google’s search results related to a number of competing vertical-search engines for proof that the company’s so-called ‘algorithm tweaks’ were in fact ways to deny competing search engines a fair shot at the target market.

While the couple did eventually get the US Federal trade Commission to agree that Google’s behaviour ‘could hurt’ both consumers and innovation in the industry, the US regulatory and judicial atmosphere has changed since the Microsoft antitrust takedown of the 1990s, and there was no appetite among prosecutors in the States for launching a prosecution of Google.

Europe is another story. An EU investigation found Google guilty of illegal anti-competitive behaviour under EU antitrust legislation in June last year, and the company was fined 2.7-billion Euros.

For Raff and Moeran, however, it may be too little too late. They have their own lawsuit, filed in Brussels, but even if they win it, they might not save their company. They’ve spent 12 years fighting Google, rather than focusing on Foundem, and business has declined.

How is the global digital industry going to ensure fair competition in the future?

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