Examining the Alt Search Landscape

What's on my radar & What's next?

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Before I get started, please make sure you go read Amy’s take on the BIG news that dropped this week in the form of a massive Google takedown…

Ok, let’s get started with this week’s topic.

Is Alt Search Ready for It’s Moment?

The Google distribution model for publishers is clearly in chaos. Content brands are having to re-think WHERE to get discovered.

Many of us haven’t had to think deeply about this in quite some time…

And then there is this story from a legacy niche outdoor brand hits home:

If it’s any consolation, the “normies” are also starting to notice the drop in Google search quality:

So, for anyone thinking a few steps ahead, might this be an excellent opportunity for a Google competitor to step in?

But what does the landscape look like today? And is there anything publishers can do differently to capture alt search visibility?

The Alt Search Landscape

Rather than rattle off a list of names, I first want to define how I think about the various “search buckets”.

  1. True Google Alternatives: These are platforms literally trying to re-create search from the ground up, not just the wrappers.

  2. Bing-Powered Alternatives: There’s a whole subset of “wrappers” that are running on Bing’s engine, but with various additional value propositions.

  3. “Not Trying to Be” Search Alternatives: In this class are large platforms that are de facto search engines, even if that wasn’t (or even still isn’t) the primary goal.

The reality is that it’s mostly a Google vs Bing story… today.

Bing actually powers a wide array of the “alternatives”, including DuckDuckGo, Yahoo, AOL, Ecosia, Swisscows, and others. It seems that the stats from these platforms aren’t necessarily rolled up under Bing’s market share, so there’s some marginal return from “optimizing for Bing” as the benefits carry through to these other portals.

There ARE some promising “true” ground up alternatives to Google (and Bing), but their market share is still quite low. Still, if you see some traffic coming from these alternatives, it may be worth investigating:

  • Brave.com: Popular in the Crypto space as a blockchain enabled alternative, also for their Chrome browser alternative. Interestingly, they are also tackling the monetization problem for publishers, using the blockchain to compensate based on views without needing the “inefficient” ad marketplace common to Google, Bing, etc…

  • You.com: A personalization search engine that “gets to know you” to deliver customized results. Has migrated more towards an AI chat assistant.

  • Qwant.com: Popular in Europe as a privacy focused Google alternative. Actually has been around for a long time!

  • Yep.com: Founded by the Ahrefs team, Yep promises a more friendly revenue sharing model with content creators.

  • Perplexity and “other” AI: Perplexity is an “AI first” search engine and AI assistant. It’s like ChatGPT, but with more attribution around sources (e.g. publishers can benefit). Side note: ChatGPT and Microsoft’s Co-Pilot also function on similar ground here and can be “optimized for” separately. Interestingly, Google’s Gemini operates similarly but often doesn’t correlate with the top 10 Google results!

*Baidu and Yandex are obviously other search engines with significant volume, but are really country specific alternatives and not pervasively used globally.

Can You Even Optimize for Alt Search?

I’m not convinced there is much I can to optimize specifically for Bing, and other intentional Google alternatives.

That said, what I can do is rank-order “the things I would do” to optimize Google search results, but with a filter on Bing, etc… In other words, you may no longer be ranking for a topic in Google, but if you are getting significant (to you) traffic from Bing for that same topic and are in position #3 for the main head term… I’d prioritize that.

In this slow and subtle way, publishers are likely going to shift towards crafting better content “for Bing”. It might feel similar for most publishers.

This gets at the fundamental reality of the current search environment: optimizing for Google is actually quite different today. It’s still early going, but my working hypothesis is that the best way for content brands to “optimize” for Google might actually be to change the model (as I discussed in a previous edition). This might mean adding a store, forum, or service.

But changing the model is HARD. Meet your new enemy: competency risk!

Optimizing for Bing might actually be the easiest operational substitution in the near term.

So What About Those “Accidental” Search Engines?

I’ve found myself going down the rabbit hole, exploring all sorts of interesting user journeys. Many are not starting with a traditional search engine.

  • Pinterest: Perhaps the closest true proxy to a search engine, Pinterest is basically an inspiration search and discovery engine. The playbook (optimizing for trending topics, keywords) is fairly similar to the old Google playbook. A tool to help here is PinGenerator.

  • YouTube: Many users just prefer the video medium to consume information and YouTube has a similar algo to Google’s. Tools to help understand and optimize YouTube are TubeBuddy and VidIQ. 

  • Reddit: There’s two ways to play Reddit. 1) as a Google search proxy. Since Reddit is ranking for virtually everything now, it’s fairly easy to rank for your “old terms” by sharing your content (with links) optimized based on the real estate Reddit is ranking for in Google. 2) some people just live in and search natively via Reddit’s clunky interface. This is more about understanding what gets surfaced and gets traction natively within the Reddit app.

  • TikTok: We’ll see how long this lasts in the US, but many people exclusively rely on TikTok for news, product recommendations, etc… It’s a de facto search engine

  • Instagram: Similar with Instagram, many people will search for “best sushi” in a specific area to get first hand recommendations, for example.

  • Facebook: Some people do “search” Facebook, although it’s mostly an “interruption engine” like TikTok.

  • Wikipedia: Wikipedia doesn’t get much attention as a traffic source, but for some verticals, it’s a reliable source of traffic if your content finds it’s way into the references and citations. Wikipedia has a fairly good internal search function (unlike Reddit).

For these platforms, you’ll need to re-imagine your distribution strategy but I’ve found that some niches are relatively easy to port over (I’ve discussed this previously in my piece on Google traffic substitutes).

But there’s also another, deeper layer here. eCommerce platforms.

The truth is that Amazon, Walmart, eBay and smaller bespoke marketplaces like Etsy are search engines if we are defining the “start page” of consumer search.

These ecommerce marketplaces are also getting outsized placement in Google search right now, meaning that real estate previously occupied by media (e.g. product reviews) is going directly to ecom.

I don’t have any clear models here yet, but there’s some value in exploring launching products on these platforms as lead gen for your “content brand”. Seems elaborate, but it’s all semantics at the end of the day. A brand is a brand and you can start from one end, or the other.

Who Can Fill the Current Search Void?

There’s clearly an incredible opportunity for a new search engine to take market share from Google. It’s still really a two dog race between Google and Bing.

My money is on Bing + Co-pilot right now, as they have the most resources and talent to make it happen.

But the trouble with Bing is that it’s owned by another lumbering bureaucracy: Microsoft. And search might not be their biggest fish to fry.

With this in mind, a more focused, smaller player or new entrant could shake things up, particularly if Google continues to disappoint users and creators.

Another possibility is that an existing tech player makes a foray into search, perhaps Elon Musk or a company like Apple with lots of unique advantages (think about all those iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks).

What I want to see is a wide array of alternatives. This would be good for publisher and users. Fierce search competition is probably also a net positive for civil society, innovation, and business progress in general. Search has become a sort of public utility.

Today’s Action Item

If you do nothing else, take a look at alternative analytics platforms like Fathom, Clicky, or Plausible to better understand WHERE your audience is finding you. Explore those rabbit holes and build a better distribution model.

This is a service company we run, reach out if you need content wizards!

Other Newsletters Worth Following

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If you are operating a newsletter (or even just interested), this next one is one of my “must opens” every week:

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