I have to admit that I raised an eyebrow when I read the L.A. Times piece about "Black Google." No, it wasn't talking about the color of the screen (though I have written about a black screen search engine being green.) Instead, it was talking about the racial color of search results and whether they're biased to race-specific audiences. The piece was actually more about RushmoreDrive.com, which is part of Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp, and was launched as an alternative search engine earlier this year, showcasing results that are targeted more at African-American Web surfers.
Need an example? I needed one, too. The Times' piece used a sample search for "Whitney" to drive home the point. Google's results led with the Whitney Museum of Art and then Whitney Bank, JC Whitney auto parts and news about Pittsburgh Penguins' Ryan Whitney. Fifth on the list was Whitney Houston. The same search on RushmoreDrive came back first with Whitney Houston's official site (then lists the museum and bank as second and third.) But, also on the first page of results is information from the African-American Registry about activist Whitney Young. So I gave it my own test and typed "King" into Google. The initial results included King.com games, KING TV station, King musical instruments, Stephen King and King College in London. There wasn't one result related to Dr. Martin Luther King. Meanwhile, on RushmoreDrive, Dr. King was referenced in five of the top results.
Judged by the comments I've seen on this topic, I know many of you are ready to lash out at me for writing this. But my take has nothing to do with race or equality on the Web or anything like that. This is about nibbling away at Google and leveling the playing field in the search game.
I think blogger Daniel Tunkelang got it right when he wrote: "I think that sites like RushmoreDrive are inevitable if search engines refuse to cede more control of search results to users." In a previous entry, he talks about how search results are formed. "Google and other web search engines rank results objectively, rather than based on user-specific considerations... Is there a way we can give control to users and thus make the search engines objective referees rather than paternalistic gatekeepers?"
If RushmoreDrive can pave the way, it won't be long before copycat search engines start popping up everywhere. Last month, I chimed in about Cuil, an alternative search engine that was launched prematurely and fell short. But I also noted that Cuil was trying to meet a need for more refined results - and how Google, while thorough, isn't always the most efficient way to search. Just as big-umbrella social networking - Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn - have help spark the growth of a subset of niche social networking properties targeted at people with common interest, hobbies and lifestyles.
When it comes to search, going head-to-head with Google - as Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, Ask and others have tried - may not be the best approach. Maybe the better way is to nibble away at Google's share of the pie via one targeted group at a time. This thing with RushmoreDrive.com isn't about race. It's about meeting the search needs of a subset of the population. It just so happens that this subset is African-Americans. Could the next nibbler go after women or bicyclists or senior citizens?
And over time, could there be enough nibblers to help level the playing field in the search game?