Forget The Search Engine. Bring On The Referral Engine

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Not a day goes by that someone, somewhere is not Blogging, Tweeting or commenting by the water-cooler about what the next generation of search engines will look like.

As every new search engine that comes on the market knows, the best publicity is to claim yourself to be the "Google Killer." As we know, this tactic rarely works and try as they may, Google is still the 800-pound-gorilla when it comes to the majority of searches in North America. In looking at the popularity of platforms like Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed and Reddit coupled with information we see in places like the Edelman Trust Barometer or what drives a sales in places like Amazon, it is clear that what really drives conversion(and this could be a sale, data collection or even simple consumer queries) is a referral. There’s a reason places like TripAdvisor work: consumers want unbiased information that is created by their peers (whether they know them personally or not) and not by brands or big corporations.

Where is the best place to find [fill in the blank]?

We use a search engine to find the answer if there’s no one within earshot, and we do this because this is all that we have had to date. In March of this year, I Blogged about the power behind Twitter here: Twitter Is Not Going After Facebook. Twitter Is Going After Google. The truth is that Twitter can’t be much of a search engine unless you have put in some serious time to build some kind of community. Many of the other referral engines act in a similar way – they are more online social network than trust referral engines where anyone can really harness the power of the wisdom of crowds.

All of that is going to change.

The "next" Google is going to look nothing like Google. It is going to be less about optimizing your website content so that it ranks high in a search engine and much more about displaying rank based on what others have said and done (and what real people have done with this information). While this may sound strange, weird and a little bit "out there," think about what type of content you would trust most: a website that returns results based on how effective they have optimized the text on their website or a collection of insights (positive, negative and neutral) from many independent and verified sources?

The search engine wars are about to heat up all over again, but this time, it’s not going to be against one another, it’s going to be against the new players who leverage the power of aggregation and editing to deliver real human powered answers and insights.


  1. I would much prefer a referral engine. How long do you think it will be before a new form of search beats Google in number of searches? That’ll require a huge shift in how people approach the web, instead of Google being the oracle for everyone that it seems to be currently.

  2. Google is already moving in this direction, signed in searches let you personalize your results. It’s only a matter of time before that feedback is used and shared. Still, that isn’t quite the difference.
    I think the thing about the other sites you mention is definitely not about search. Search is where you go to look for something. The other sites are where you things you didn’t know existed, and thus couldn’t search for, come to find you. Google Reader is where I go to see what my friends are reading, what they like, what they recommend around the web. It’s where I follow the blogs I like (such as this one). Facebook is where I see what my friends are up to, I don’t search there very often, just for people every now and then, I just see what’s up. Twitter is very similar.

  3. A referral engine sounds exciting. It will get users more involved which is great. Opinions of others always count. I noticed that I tend to believe people and their experiences more than listening to advertisements and whatnot. I think a referral engine is a great idea. I wonder when this idea can finally materialize?

  4. I think you’re spot on here. There are LOTS of signs that Google is moving this direction. It kind of reminds me of the BORG, in that the collective makes the decisions, but that could be because I’m a bit of a nerd.
    (If you don’t know what the BORG are, google it and you’ll end up with LOTS of Star Trek geekiness.)

  5. Hi Mitch
    Referral engines are indeed all the rage.
    A while ago, I blogged about the new social media search engine, Aardvark – a”search engine” that returns results on normative questions by searching user networks. And although, Matt is correct in pointing out that the principle already exists in Facebook and Twitter, this may in fact be the first formalised search engine based on crowdsourcing. Personally, I think it’s a very exciting development and a definite strong signal that talks to your article.
    Will it catch on? Well, as Debbie mentioned in the comment above, it’s going to take a huge mindshift for people to realise they have other options when it comes to search – especially since Google is so much part of the global zeitgeist.
    And that raises the question as to whether or not these new search engines will kill off Google? I don’t think so. There’s room for everyone, for hard-stat results like Wolfram, for “I don’t know where to begin, give me a push” results like Google, for everyone…(except another Google. We have that already).
    Great article as always Mitch.
    FULL DISCLOSURE: I am no affiliated to Aardvark in any way. I’m just a fan of people who try new stuff.

  6. For me, it’s not about another “destination” using their own database based on your own personal network. It’s about another destination leveraging really strong aggregation and editing to gather, rank and classify what your looking for based on how other human beings have talked/searched about what it is you’re looking for.
    I know that reads confusing.
    Think about it this way: what if Amazon’s referral engine was not based on their own database and collection of peer reviews but based (agnostically) on everything and anything that has been said (text, images, audio, video) about a book online. Add on that its purpose was not to sell you books, but to give you great information/referrals from what others have done before you.

  7. Interesting post. As soon as I saw “referral engine” I thought of startups like Yelp and Gigpark, which are banking their businesses on the power of referrals. I think they’re a great idea – you’re more likely to trust restaurants, services, and people if they’re recommended by a friend (or at least actual people in your city). Whether or not these sorts of review-based services will be present in some capacity in a future referral search engine will be interesting to see.

  8. Referral engine? Nice 3 years late to the conversation [insert humorous sarcasm]. That’s the primary goal FAST Search was diligently pursuing prior to their purchase by Microsoft. It’s been the conversation we’ve been deeply immersed in at their annual conferences (FASTforward) for the last 3 years — with classic examples of same being shared by their clients, each year.
    The question is whether or not Microsoft will be able to leverage the strengths of the underlying architecture as they’ve merged it into SharePoint2010.
    As well, I was impressed by a colleague at an exercise we did at FASTforward09 (, where he noted that the metrics public engines like Google and Yahoo rely on (number of results and speed) are the antithesis of what’s needed: relevant results. What we really want are fewer results, even if it takes longer to get them.

  9. But how has the consumer adoption been? Do people even know about it? What is usage like? Also, is the database “there” yet – meaning early search engines sucked mostly because the content was not there to fill it properly and people did not know how to optimize their websites to be more findable. We need all of these online referrals to set their content free and let it be more findable and referable.

  10. I read you loud and clear Mitch,
    “It is going to be less about optimizing your website content so that it ranks high in a search engine and much more about displaying rank based on what others have said and done (and what real people have done with this information).”
    I love this quote. Its amazing to think of how this will evolve and what it could look like. Using popularity from human generated buzz instead of SEO efforts. I am sure it will open a new door for spammers…. but the results will be life changing at least.
    Rotkapchen, has a good point. The number of results wont make you a better search engine these days… very very few people really read past the first few pages of search results. Most the time a new search is needed to further define the need.
    Who wouldn’t switch to a search engine that takes 3 seconds to proved me with a single page of fantastic highly recommended results, than spend 3 minutes doing 5 searches and cross referencing the choices with review sites.

  11. Are we talking about “either/or”? Or is this an evolution, combining what’s been written and what’s been recommended? Either way, I agree that an edited result is great – the power of human thought still can’t be overriden.

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