Search is the gateway and guidepost to the Internet. Over the past five years, the business of search has changed from a model resembling a friendly but very well built lemonade stand to the current state of monolithic but often dysfunctional empires built by and around today’s big three (MSN, Google and Yahoo). With tens of billions of dollars at stake, competition between the big three has turned into an all-out business war, the casualties of which are jobs, cool technologies, and ultimately, the current wild-west atmosphere of the Internet. When the dust settles, finding what you are looking for may be a bit more difficult and expensive. There will likely be a major decrease in search options by this time next year and what does exist will likely cost you, unless you are interested in finding information that has been pre-paid for by the supplier (advertiser) as opposed to the consumer (searcher). Google is likely to retain non-paid listings as a priority but that may change if Google issues public shares through a widely expected spring-time IPO. That, however, is then and this is now. Today’s battle takes place between engineers at Overture and Google, with Overture landing a solid upper-cut in the form of Local Search proficiency.

Yahoo/Overture is in the process of re-positioning itself by introducing new features as it is absorbed by Yahoo. Of these new features, only one stands out as a trail-blazer that others will no doubt follow, narrowing search results based on the searcher’s geographic area. In other words, Overture is targeting the venerable Yellow Pages in the local business reference market. Overture is hoping that Localized search proficiency will be the feature that makes it the search engine of choice for home consumers looking for the perfect pizza or other local service. Google and MSN are following suit but are months behind Overture in development and introduction. Currently, Overture is experimenting with localized search through AltaVista which was purchased by Overture earlier this year. One out of every ten searches will bring up a “Local Sponsored Matches” option for searchers to follow. The listings found here come from paid listings at Overture. By using paid listings, Overture hopes to keep results as relevant as possible assuming that websites with non-relevant information would not wish to pay for placements in geographic areas that do not pertain to their businesses. Results are still somewhat spotty under several different keyword phrases but that is due mostly to a current lack of participation by advertisers, a situation expected to change as search engines become more popular with home users and advertisers become more aware of the low costs associated with online advertising. Perhaps a few rainforests can be spared from being mulched into the slew of annual telephone directories along the way.

As Overture introduces the new local feature, expect Google and MSN to ramp out the introduction of other new features such as personalization of search results (Google) and the inclusion of documents from your own harddrive in search results (MSN). The only dark-spot on the horizon for the big-three is the chance of confusing users with so many new features. Remember the growth of Google was built on the simple, stripped down interface that delivered information without making the user think.