Pinterest, the inspirational search engine

Pinterest processes more searches than DuckDuckGo and is the #1 destination for inspirational searches. Compared to Google, Pinterest has significant competitive advantages in the way it serves search results.

I have never searched for a single keyword on DuckDuckGo. But, as of January 2021, it has processed 100 billion searches. A big milestone!

Compared to Google, DuckDuckGo (DDG) is still a small fish. In December of 2021 alone, DDG processed about 3 billion queries. In 2019, Google processed 3.5 billion searches per day. In other words, DDG gets the same volume per month that Google processes in less than a day. [1, 2]

Running up again one of the best businesses in the world is tough. DDG’s differentiator is privacy-first positioning, but how big of a pain point is privacy in search really? You could argue that keywords provide enough context for search engines to serve relevant ads without having to profile users. Collecting lots of data about users for profiling is one of the biggest privacy concerns but Google Search (not speaking about Chrome, Android, and other products) seems to be less of a problem case.

Privacy-first positioning separates DDG from Neeva, an ad-free search engine that differentiates itself through a different monetization model. Users pay a monthly subscription fee to finance the search engine and get an ad-free experience. Ad-free seems like a stronger value proposition to me than privacy-first, but we don’t know how many searches Neeva processes.

And yet, DDG’s numbers pale in comparison to another search engine that’s flying under the radar and might be a bigger threat to Google.

How to attack a giant

In May 2021, Pinterest announced processing over 5 billion monthly searches, 2 billion more than DuckDuckGo. Comparing how long it takes each search engine to reach 1 billion searches, it would take DDG 10 days, Pinterest 6, and Google only a third of a day. Just looking at search queries, you could say more people care about inspiration than privacy when searching but there is more at play. [3, 4]

Days it takes to reach 1 billion searches

Most users would consider Pinterest a social network instead of a search engine and they’re not completely wrong. Pinterest, itself the 10th largest site on the internet, is a social/search hybrid like Youtube, just for images instead of videos. It carries search engine features like the front-and-center onsite search and Pinterest Trends, a valuable Google Trends clone.

Pinterest built an onsite/in-app search engine called Mana to simplify discovery. Mana has many similarities with Google’s search engine, but one key differentiator: its fuzzy matching score. Exact match means searchers find exactly what they’re looking for. Fuzzy match (or broad match) means search results are very loosely related to the query. Each of them can be dialed up or down. Pinterest seems to weigh fuzzy matching much stronger than information-driven search engines because too narrow search results are not supportive of discovery and inspiration. [5, 6]

Users come to Pinterest for inspiration and discovering new styles, concepts, and ideas. They go to Google for specific information. The technical way to explain the difference is the concept of Fuzzy Matching.

So, how do you attack a giant? In their blind spot. DDG capitalizes on a change in public perception (privacy is important) and Neeva a change in consumer preferences (pay money instead of attention). But Pinterest serves a completely different intent that’s hard for Google to serve because it’s at odds with its core value: exact and fast information. Users on Pinterest don’t want an exact answer, they want to give a direction and then explore what else is out there.

Pinterest = a search engine for inspiration

The optimal balance between fuzzy and exact match has been a problem for in information retrieval for decades. Should users see only results that perfectly match their query or also related results? Should search engines try to understand and match user intention (which is what Google does now). How much should they respect the query vs. searcher behavior?

No search engine can satisfy all intents perfectly. Even Google has a blind spot. I previously wrote about Google’s market dominance, but incumbency is not evenly distributed across all products and neither across all search intents.

Pinterest is on track to become the de facto search engine for inspirational and discovery searches. One example I already mentioned is that Pinterest outpaces DuckDuckGo.

Another data point is the design of Google’s image search, which already looks a lot like Pinterest. It’s a counter-move. Notice the bar of related searches (fuzzy match) under the search bar at the top.

Google image search looks a lot like Pinterest

Inspiration is not the only search vertical Google gets attacked in. Amazon has been dominating product/e-commerce search for decades. More than half of product searches start on Amazon. [7]

Now, Google is fighting back with a redesigned product search page (introduced at Search On 2021). It’s much more image-heavy and looks a lot more like Amazon.

Google product search looks a lot like Amazon

It’s a delicate balance for Google to compete with specialized search engines like Amazon or Pinterest. At some point, trying to be broad and narrow at the same time is cannibalizing. That opens a window of opportunity for marketers.

The opportunity is in creating specific content for different platforms. Just like creating video content for Youtube is a good idea (lots of attention), inspirational images are a good idea for Pinterest. The query “2022 hair trends for women” hit its highest search demand on January 7th, 2022. Merchant and affiliates in that space are missing out by not being present here.

In times of increasing competition in organic search, creating more content for the largest inspirational search engine might pay off. Many affiliates, merchants, and bloggers are thinking about their Youtube strategy but how many consider Pinterest? Not enough.