When Neil Holloway, the president of Microsoft's (MSFT) Europe, Middle East and Africa operations, blurted out March 1 that his company's search technology would be more relevant in the U.S. than Google's (GOOG) within six months, executives in the company's MSN unit cringed. For years, Microsoft has added features and improved technology in its Web search engine, only to see Google's lead expand.
"I think I was more surprised than you" at the comments, says Christopher Payne, vice-president of Windows Live Search, the area of Microsoft that focuses on Web search. "That is not our philosophy." Internally, executives have become wary of over-promising results against Google's search juggernaut.
THIS YEAR'S MODEL. That hasn't stopped Microsoft from targeting the market, mind you. On March 8, Microsoft will unveil a new collection of search features, many of them not offered by Google. They include the ability to customize searches, so users can comb through a selected group of sites over and over. Microsoft improved the way users can preview data, providing tools to increase or decrease how much information is shown on the results page. And search results continuously load, so users don't have to click on "next" to see more results.
But Payne isn't saying the new features will help displace Google anytime soon. Microsoft began using its own technology to help answer search queries in Feb., 2005, after previously licensing Yahoo's capability (see BW Online, 2/2/05, "Microsoft's Mission: Search and Destroy").
Since then, though, Google's lead has widened. In January, Google accounted for 41.4% of all U.S. searches, compared with 35.1% a year earlier, according to comScore Networks, which tracks the search-engine market. In the same period, searches using Microsoft's MSN sites accounted for 13.7% of all U.S. searches, from 16% a year earlier. "Obviously, I'd like that number to be better," Payne says. "We need to do more to differentiate."
BIG MACRO. Microsoft plans to do just that with customization. The company hopes the test software it's rolling out now will be up on its MSN.com site by summer. Here's how it works: Web surfers can create "search macros," a feature that lets users save specific sites to search over and over.
So softball players, for example, can collect a list of their favorite online stores and search a specific brand of bats on one day and gloves on another to find the best deals. News junkies can compile only their favorite Web sites to find out what those publications have to say about President Bush's trip to Pakistan or the Enron trial.
And folks can share their macros too. Someone who loves to cook can collect the best recipe sites and then post the macro so others can use it to unearth the best concoction for chateaubriand.
NOT SO FAST. Microsoft has also made it easier to pick through the results of its Web search. Users searching for images, for example, can hover over pictures to blow them up for a better view. And the company is incorporating technology from its recent purchase of Onfolio that stashes pieces of Web pages to view later, so users can keep a collection of data on specific topics of interest.
For all Microsoft's technological leaps, Google will be difficult to knock off its perch. Payne is betting that Microsoft's advances will give it offerings that Google can't match. "I'm hoping our technological lead will translate into market share," Payne says. Holloway should still take note: It may take more than six months.