When I was at eBay, we had a belief that no one was going to compete with us by replicating exactly what we were doing. We had first mover advantages and network effects. Amazon and Yahoo! both launched auction marketplaces in response to eBay's strong growth, and both businesses were essentially DOA. What did concern us was that someone would compete with us with a new, disruptive approach—a completely different take on the business.
Early on, we came to believe that Google's emerging search business was the biggest threat that eBay faced. eBay helped users find hard-to-find, unique products. Google's goal of organizing the world's information also helped users find hard-to-find, unique products. The mechanisms and models were different, but the overlap was clear and we came to view Google as our top competitive threat.
This thought was validated after the fact by then-Google executive Sheryl Sandberg. We both were guest speakers at the same Intuit event a few years back, and I stayed after my talk to listen to Sheryl. In response to a question, Sheryl said something along the lines of, "We knew early on at Google that our key competitor was eBay." I almost jumped to my feet shouting, "I knew it!" It did not make me feel any better that eBay was one of Google's very top advertisers at the time, and that we were paying them tons of money that they were in turn using to compete with us.
In Google's case today, I am becoming increasingly convinced that their most challenging competitor isn't another search engine like Yahoo!, Bing, Baidu or Yahoo! Japan. It's Amazon, which is bringing a completely different take on search—in this case, product search.
Amazon is a vertical search engine focused on helping users find products. The overwhelmingly dominant way to find things on their site is the search box. Users enter a keyword phrase and are presented with results that match his or her query. The order of the search results is determined by algorithms that seek to optimize relevance and monetization. Sound familiar?
In my personal website use, I increasingly find myself searching for products on Amazon instead of Google. Shopping on Amazon is a superior user experience and it runs the table on the magical retailer formula of selection, price and convenience. It has an increasingly comprehensive product assortment, with their ever-expanding direct sales supplemented by third-party merchants who sell on the platform. Prices are almost always extremely competitive, so much so that I have pretty much stopped using Google to comparison-shop at different merchants. And it offers the fastest and most cost effective shipping solutions, particularly in Prime (which has the interesting impact of making me want to buy goods on Amazon to make sure I get the most out of my $79/year Prime membership). I can buy an item on Amazon in a minute, secure in the knowledge that I'm likely paying the lowest price while getting free shipping and fast delivery.
Contrast that with the shopping experience on Google. Shopping on Google is work. It has infinite selection…if you can manage to find what you're looking for amidst the forest of search results. You have to work to find the best price, typically by pogo-ing in and out of different search results to check both prices and shipping costs. And when you find a product you want to buy from a new merchant, you need to enter all the payment and shipping information from scratch. Buying on Google takes chunks of an hour, not an Amazon minute.