Is Microsoft's Vision of Search Enough to Catch Google?
Posted by: Rob Hof on August 19, 2008
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!)