Is Microsoft's Vision of Search Enough to Catch Google?

Posted by: Rob Hof on August 19, 2008

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Short answer: No. Not even close. Not for a long time, anyway.

But it’s sure trying hard, and it would be dangerous for anyone to write off Microsoft. Its determination was on display today at the Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s senior VP of search, portal, and advertising platform group, told the crowd that he sees searchers moving from merely typing keywords into Google to getting tasks done.

Not coincidentally, getting tasks done is essentially Microsoft’s main business, so that sounds a little too convenient. But in fact, searchers are already doing that to varying degrees. Nadella cited an interesting figure: About half the queries on Microsoft’s Live Search site are part of search sessions that extend over 30 minutes.

At the same time, Microsoft is trying some interesting new things in search, from paying searchers through its new Live Search cashback to buying startups such as Powerset and Farecast for new features to search distribution deals with Hewlett-Packard and Facebook.

Not least, I don’t think—as some folks do—that Google inevitably will keep getting more share of queries forever. When you get to around 70% share, with margins as fat as an Olympic shot putter, the market ecosystem gets out of whack and everyone in the pond works to get it back to some equilibrium. Even Google probably can’t stop that in the long run.

For all that, though, I still don’t see a killer strategy from Microsoft to really take on Google. Except maybe one, and it’s risky: time. Right now, Nadella told me and my colleague Peter Burrows in an interview afterwards, search is mostly text-based. “But that will change,” he said. “We just have to keep at it.” Essentially, he’s saying, Microsoft has time to keep chipping away at its archrival and pounce at the first signs of weakness or a market disruption.

Despite many missteps, including the handling of its attempted Yahoo acquisition—still its best chance to jumpstart its online ad strategy—Microsoft’s pretty good at that game. It has the money to both spend on startups and new search features and wait watchfully for search to evolve beyond Google’s iconic “ten blue links.” If and when there’s a shift to new modes of searching, as there inevitably will be, Microsoft may have an opening.

Problem for Microsoft and everyone else is that Google isn’t standing still. Arguably, it’s in the best position to revolutionize search before anyone else. Time may be Microsoft’s best hope, but only if it doesn’t run out of it first.

(Update: Spelling corrected on Nadella’s name, sorry Satya!)

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Reader Comments

Rob

August 20, 2008 01:26 AM

Microsoft should provide me with an application when i type something into a search box that's made up entirely (well mostly) of web services from all the offerings! Build me an application that satisfies my query. If they can do that then everybody will leave Google and use them!

mjw149

August 20, 2008 09:18 AM

I don't think search is going to change significantly. I don't think ten blue links is a cultural or technological convenience, it's a basic cognitive construct.

MS has enormously benefited from a similar phenomenon: Word processors haven't significantly changed in a couple decades, neither have spreadsheets. SQL-based databases haven't changed significantly in two decades. Unix hasn't changed significantly in three decades. Neither have desktop computers at work.

Some form factors are so convenient they can't be improved on. MS should know this and get back to investing in a multibillion dollar industry that they CAN win: videogames.

hfwk

August 20, 2008 10:29 AM

Google and Microsoft: When we search (and find), why are the titles of articles not dated (or rarely so) ?

ਜਸਵਿਂਦਰ ਸਿਂਘ

August 20, 2008 10:56 AM

microsoft is stupid. a close source. money maker ,full of mean people.

AlexS

August 20, 2008 11:26 AM

I think that MS is making a fundamental mistake. They should try to take down Google the way they took down WordPerfect.

MS should focus on making a search engine that's just like Google. I know that's not enough to make people switch. But if they can produce parity of quality, even if they don't get the traffic or the profits, they can use that as a base to improve things. They can poach the best people from Google, and they can be more aggressive about adding new features.

Basically, Google is going to have to make a mistake. MS's task is to be in position to pounce when that happens.

Everyone makes a mistake eventually. Google will make a mistake. Vista is filled with mistakes. WordPerfect botched the transition from character to gui displays, and when they did, MS was there with Word.

Google has a corporate culture that worships its own genius. They're obviously very smart guys, but that kind of hubris always produces mistakes. It will happen. MS just has to lay siege, and be ready to stick the shiv in when the time comes.

The reason MS wins is because they know how to lay siege, and they have the resources to do it. They need to go back to that.

They need to duplicate Google's search as closely as possible, and they need to duplicate ad sense as closely as possible. And they need to be patient.

Google will give them the chance to stick the shiv in if they wait long enough. Everyone always does.

Brett Huber

August 20, 2008 12:14 PM

Microsoft will never catch up Google, period, no matter how much money they spend. That is not in the gene. In the heart, they are still a PC desktop company with a monopoly power due to the nature of PC desktop application software. Google takes entirely different culture and approach to succeed, which Microsoft can NOT copy. Even in enterprise application software, Microsoft only has mix of success, failure and even damages to the area.

kireet

August 20, 2008 12:17 PM

i have an idea to increase the search hits on maps in India

Arnie

August 20, 2008 12:45 PM

I recommend they buy this personalization patent so they can make personalized search recommendations and use if for all their media products as well. They need a differentiator. It’s going up for sale on eBay.

http://www.personalizationpatent.com/

Hilton

August 20, 2008 01:01 PM

Microsoft must remember one thing: To rule you must provide. Provide a search engine than Google and people will run to you... But until then, the market is on Google's side. If they want to take a piece of the market, provide a better system. No matter what, that is the bottom line.

Mant

August 20, 2008 02:11 PM

The fact is Microsoft cannot innovate. Look at the game console market, MS kept trying to match quality and features of Sony Play Station, when Nintendo introduced the Wii a complete game changer. As one of the comment here rightly says "they are still a PC desktop company with a monopoly power due to the nature of PC desktop application software". Look at the Mobile OS market space, MS kept playing catch up with Palm, but BlackBerry and Apple came up with technologies that MS couldn't even dream of, and they rule the market alongwith Nokia. The very notion that MS has to be a dominant player in every tech are is just so passe. I think, people are just sick and tired of using pathetic MS products, let there be some fresh air, let the innovation blossom, free people from rebooting their computers 3 times a day...

gopal

August 20, 2008 03:32 PM

what a wide achivement MS reached that cannot be abased by anyhow today, so, the fools criticised should think over themselves.

Chingizkh

August 20, 2008 05:48 PM

I personaly think MS has already realized that any company's future lies in their constant innovative way of thinking. there was even an article here about the importance of every CEO to be like designers themeselves (in a broad form). Good design (and thus good product) = logic + aesthetics. Both Apple and Google have clearly shown that their quick way to the top was the fact that they saw their future with staying innovative. I think MS sees that and they are prepared to change. Bill gates predicted that within the next 5 years computer-human interface will change dramatically. Now when Bill Gates talks the world listens. MS doesnt only "make windows" they are an Institution and its very important not to underestimate that. Soon to be released MS Surface is a perfect example showing how it will.
Same with search.
Semantic search is "The Next Big Thing" there are no doubts about that. I do have a very big respect for Google search bar's abilities in rating pages by importance but for a while googling the words "to be or not to be" was a wild goose chase. Google is for public use lets not forget about that. If you pay an intelligent person to do your term-paper research the results would be much more "efficient" in terms of information importance with relevance to the query.
Giants like IBM have shown a different type of search engine that searches on a semantic level based on user's query almost a paragraph in length. The search engine by the way can look for money laudring and can download the whole Internet in less than 24 hours.
Google's result pages are 100% ergonomic. They have even taken into account the way user normaly moves their eyes on the screen and positioned the results in the most appropriate part of the page. But "10 blue links" as was pointed out with time will get out of date as products like the legendary iPhone and MS Surface become more real and popular.
Concluding, I do agree with the author that time is the only thing that can take MS to the next step.
Google cannot shut down but creating a semantic search engine means creating a new search engine.

Andrew

August 20, 2008 07:04 PM

Although 10 years ago it wasn't so, I'd bet that these days both Microsoft and Yahoo search deliver results on par with Google's. But that's not the point. The point is that Google has TREMENDOUS marketing buzz around it. Google = cool, trendy, hip, good while Microsoft = old, obsolete, nerdy, evil. Yahoo = also ran and after thought. This kind of momentum in Google's favor is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to change. If Microsoft does want to go on a full frontal assault against Google search, they should do so under a new and separate brand altogether. Expedia is wildly successful -- how many people know that it's actually a MSFT subsidiary? Exactly. What if it was called Microsoft Traveler? Now I'm not saying it would be out-of-business if it was, but maybe just maybe something "cooler" like Travelocity or Orbitz would be the leader instead.

Marketing is brain washing writ large. And in that regard Google is the world leader in the internet sphere hands-down.

jojo

August 20, 2008 07:25 PM

The real big question is why are the 30% that are using other search engines rather than Google not using Google instead? Market share should be at least like Google's marketshare in India (81%). Google is simply what you do when you Google something, hence the synonymity between the two terms. Google is the best and Google will continue to get even better. Search is in Google's DNA and search's DNA is in Google, so enmeshed together as one that Google is search and search is Google. Even my 3 year old niece knows Google!

Andrew

August 21, 2008 02:18 PM

IRT Jojo's question...

They don't know any better -- plain and simple. I remember reading a study not too long ago that showed that the average IQ or SES (I forget which one, probabably both anyway) of a Yahoo searcher was lower than that of a Google searcher. I'll bet this is true of Microsoft search as well. I'll be this holds true for Gmail users vs. users of yahoo mail and hotmail too.

Yet another reason that people use Google is brand familiarity. A Gmail/Google ID unlocks tons of useful Google functionality for a user -- Gmail, Google News, Google Docs, iGoogle, etc. People tend to stick to what they know and recognize and with Google's virutal ubiquity these days, just about everybody who's anybody recognizes the Big G.

Lee Lorenzen

August 21, 2008 04:02 PM

Rob,

As described here, http://kallout.blogspot.com/2008/08/search-is-not-zero-sum-game.html, Aaron Goldman of SearchMedia Insider has discovered that Search is Not a Zero-Sum Game.

This means that Microsoft can win by partnering or acquiring companies that create alternative starting points for search.

Our early data at KallOut shows that the "selection-based search" category that KallOut is creating may be one of the keys to massively growing the Search Query Pie.

Thanks,
Lee Lorenzen
CEO, KallOut -- a new way to search using only your mouse

Jim Yiapanis

August 24, 2008 01:48 AM

Why is it so that Microsoft must compete in the search business?

Microsoft would be better placed furthering its software plus services strategy to ensure their ubiquitous business productivity applications stay relevant in the new on-demand paradigm.

Will hunt

August 25, 2008 07:20 PM

If Bill will code for 1 year to write a better search engine. I think they will

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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