Desi does it

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By Forget Google. The day may not be far when Indian search engines rule our hearts and minds, says Hemchhaya De
  • Published 14.03.10
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Anurag Dod is a happy man. When the young webpreneur was looking for investors to launch his search engine guruji.com a few years ago, he had a hard time convincing people that desi search engines could be viable when Indians had access to such global players as Google, Yahoo or MSN. Today, Dod feels that he has been able to prove the sceptics wrong.

For the desi search engine has been going great guns. A Comscore (an Indian online market research company) study ranks guruji.com as the fourth best search engine in India — after Google, Yahoo and MSN. A report by another Indian market research firm, Juxtconsult, says that its Indian music search option scores over similar services provided by Google as it is much more user friendly.

“Guruji is available in almost all major Indian languages now. We get one million hits a day on an average,” says Dod, the proud CEO of the search site.

Guruji is not alone. Today there are several Indian search engines jostling for space in the world wide web. And they have Baidu, the Chinese search engine, to look to for inspiration. Baidu outperformed Google in that country with a market share of 60 per cent. Google may have been threatening to pull out of China, but had that unfortunate event occurred Baidu would have been there to move into the vacuum.

India’s domestic search engines may not have had Baidu’s success as yet. But they are certainly standing their ground — and at times enjoying an edge over behemoths like Google or MSN when it comes to searching for local information.

A recent study carried out by the Internet and Mobile Association of India pegs the domestic search engine market at $50 million (Rs 200 crore), which is expected to touch $200 million (Rs 800 crore) in the next three years. The scope for growth is evident, says the study, from the fact that the percentage of Indian Internet users opting for ‘search’ has gone up from 35 in 2004 to almost 75 over the past couple of years.

To stay ahead in the game, and to corner a bigger share of the market, most domestic search engines are reinventing themselves or planning to expand into newer territories. For instance, Sify will be re-launching its search engine, khoj.com, in the third quarter of this year. “Khoj is currently open to a select community and is growing at an average rate of 50 per cent a month,” says Venkata Rao, head of interactive services, Sify Technologies, Chennai. Likewise, Rediff search (http://search.rediff.com/ ilsearch.html) is also busy experimenting with more and more localised options.

Locateindia.com, launched in 2005 with a business focus, seems to be another success story in the making. Says Vinayak Sinha, CEO of Locateindia, “Our site has grown by over 40 per cent in terms of content and over 85-90 per cent in terms of search hits annually.” Its sister site, IndiaSeek.com, “is one of the largest searchable directories now with 2,50,000 Indian websites listed on it. And locateindia.com has 4,00,000 listed websites in various Indian languages,” says Sinha.

Searchko.in, a Tamil search engine, has visitors from 23 countries. “On an average, 200 keywords are searched daily in various fields,” says Sobha L, who heads the research team that developed searchko.in at the AU-KBC Research Centre on the MIT campus of Anna University, Chennai. She adds that they are now working on extending the search engine to other Dravidian languages so as to reach a larger number of people in rural areas.

But some are still sceptical about whether Indians will ever really break the Google or Yahoo habit and take to a local search engine. “That’s like asking ‘would Indians read local magazines as opposed to Time and Newsweek or ‘would Indians watch local TV channels as opposed to BBC’,” says Ajit Balakrishnan, CEO, Rediff. com. “But it’s only a tiny sliver of westernised households that will probably say they only watch BBC, or only read Newsweek, and of course, use only Google. The fact is that the Internet is in its infancy in India with very low broadband penetration.”

But Sobha L is confident that as Internet penetration increases in India, the demand for desi search engines will also grow among the country’s non-English speaking population. “There should be government funds or private sector funding for desi search engines,” she says.

Starting up a desi search engine is not exactly cheap. Guruji was launched with a capital of $7 million. “The minimum investment could be a million dollars or its multiples,” says Philip George, a former journalist who runs a directory based out of India called findouter.com that caters to 14 countries. George launched a search engine along with his friend several years ago and later sold it to an Indian company. “The success rate for Indian search engines is still quite low. Only a handful has the right kind of technology,” he says.

Others underscore the need for a sustainable financial model. “One should have the capital to sustain a search engine for at least four to five years after its launch,” says Sanjay Tiwari, director, Juxtconsult. Besides, he cautions, “One cannot survive by being just a city-specific search engine. One has to cater to at least 50-60 Indian cities and towns to be counted as a force to reckon with.”

Some say that since search engines depend solely on advertising revenues for survival, they might find it tough going because the bulk of their users are from smaller towns. “Desi search engines may not attract as many big advertisers as they would in big cities,” says Asheesh Raina, principal research analyst, Gartner India, the global IT research firm.

Others point out that one should not take Baidu’s success as proof that the desi search engine model will work quite as successfully in India. “It will be unfair to compare India with China in this regard. Firstly, Internet censorship laws are far more rigid in China than they are in India. So an international search engine like Google is seriously restricted in its operation. Secondly, most people in China are fluent in Mandarin, whereas in India the language market is highly fragmented,” says Raina.

Still, experts feel that desi search engines are certainly making an impact. And naturally, those who innovate will make a dent in the market share of the likes of Google or Yahoo. “The ones who solve our local search problems best will be the future leaders,” says Balakrishnan. “Take the experiment we are doing with Local Search and Local Ads at Rediff Search. For instance, your search for a particular montessori school will throw up a map which shows you the location of the school you searched for as well as other schools that are nearby. We will also have a Talk Now service which will automatically connect the searcher and the school.”

It’s innovations like these that will help power the desi search engines forward. And there’s every indication that they are doing all they can to make their presence felt.