Every established market leader must eventually face disruptive challengers. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) was once a hungry startup itself but now reigns as the defender of the online search crown, with a new set of upstarts nipping at its heels.
The latest challenge comes from France, where fresh-faced search engine, Qwant, is hoping to upset Google's dominant market position.
Founded in 2011 and hitting the Web in 2013, Qwant combines several types of searches onto a single page of results. The site integrates social networking directly into the search experience, making it easy to share your results on Facebook and Twitter. Moreover, the service prides itself on performing anonymous searches where the user's identity isn't tied to the results.
Is this the radical disruptor that will bring Google to its knees -- or just another fringe player, unlikely to ruffle the American giant's feathers?
What's new and different?
Qwant's anonymous search policy ties into a global trend. Other alternative search engines have been making similar claims for years, led by privacy-focused upstart DuckDuckGo.
The sprawling results pages hearken back to a much earlier time, when meta search engines were required for getting usable results out of the simplest of searches. The page design also brings back echoes from a decade ago or more. User-friendly design clearly took a backseat to providing as much information as possible in a single page.
So Qwant is more of a throwback than a radical innovation, at least on the surface. The service is actually not a meta search engine, having built its own online catalog on technology licensed from fellow French technologist, Pertimm. However, the results from this central database are expanded by tapping into social data gathered from Facebook and Twitter, encyclopedic information from Wikipedia, and other niche-specific data sources.
The Wikipedia results may raise an eyebrow or two, being presented under Qwant's own "Qnowledge Graph" banner. The information is clearly labeled as being pulled straight from Wikipedia, but only at the very bottom. Up top, the service clearly leans on Google's branding efforts with its Knowledge Graph database.
To clarify that bit even further, Google does not pull its Knowledge Graph results out of Wikipedia but from its own proprietary Web-scraping efforts. For better or worse, Google provides a fully automated system for encyclopedia-style facts, while Qwant's similar results are hand-edited by Wikipedia's users.
Should Google be scared?
Qwant does bring a different search format to the table, with a side of improved privacy. For those who didn't know, Google collects information about its users and their search habits, then feeds the data back into personalized advertising streams and improved search services. Qwant does neither of these things, not even if you're logged into your Qwant account.
There is surely a market for this, warts and all. The Twitter and Facebook features look especially nifty and could make Qwant regulars out of the heaviest social media users. But as a Google shareholder ,it doesn't make me stretch a trembling finger over the "sell" button.
"There's a need for a choice," said Qwant investor Jean Manuel Rozan in a recent interview with the New York Times' Dealbook blog. "Europe is the only place in the world where people think that Google is the Internet."
True enough. But if established tech giants have failed to topple Google with products like Yahoo! Search and Microsoft 's Bing -- both sporting European market shares below 4% each, while Google soars to nearly 92% -- you have to wonder why this unusual but flawed search tool would fare any better.
Simply not being Google isn't good enough. Qwant must back its claims up with solid services, and the current design is too unfocused to go anywhere.
I realize that it's a young service, still finding its footing, but chances are that it'll fall apart before becoming a viable business. Truth be told, DuckDuckGo looks like a far bigger threat than Qwant will ever be in its current form.