C’mon Microsoft — Say You’re In Search Because You Love It, Not Want To Earn From It

Sigh. Reading Stephen Ballmer’s latest "rally the troops" memo over yet another Microsoft reorganization, I just want to scream at the man and the company in general that they’ll never win at search if they don’t get it through their heads that it’s not about selling ads, but serving searchers.

Actually, I did kind of scream at Microsoft back in June, when I was asked to do a talk there. Primarily for those involved in the webmaster tools area, I called it "Tough Love For Microsoft Search" and might eventually turn it into a post. One of my key slides had these bullet points:

You Don’t Seem To Love Search

  • A chore? Search feels like something you (as a company) have to do but don’t want to
     
  • Part of the advertising dollars you’re after rather than a core service
     
  • Compare and contrast…

My next slide went on to compare Google’s tag line to what Microsoft has been pitching these days:

Google:
Search, Ads & Apps

Microsoft:
Software + Services

Google is first and foremost about search. Microsoft, which wants to compete against Google in this crucial area, doesn’t even mention the word as part of its mission tag or whatever you want to call it.

You see that again in the memo from Ballmer:

Software plus services: Some people think software plus services is all about search. But it’s really about changing the way software is written and deployed.

OK, glad we’ve cleared that up. Software + Services isn’t about search. It’s about software. Of course, search isn’t software, which was another of my slides I presented to Microsoft. They seem to think search is just some type of application they need to write, rather than a service they should be providing.

I can’t quite get the distinction across as well as I’d like, but the core point to me is that search isn’t something I’m going to install. It’s not Search 2003 that becomes Search 2005, then Vista in the traditional upgrade cycle that Microsoft is used to — it doesn’t play to what I suspect is the core institution framework that Redmond seems used to. Microsoft, by viewing and attacking search as a software problem, may be slowing itself down.

I’ll try to expand on this more in the future, especially as I find ways to either support the idea or perhaps debunk it. But for now, let’s see what else the memo has about search….

Google: We continue to compete with Google on two fronts—in the enterprise, where we lead; and in search, where we trail. In search, our technology has come a long way in a very short time and it’s an area where we’ll continue to invest to be a market leader. Why? Because search is the key to unlocking the enormous market opportunities in advertising, and it is an area that is ripe for innovation.

The bolded part is mine. Why’s Microsoft doing search? To make money off of ads. Very inspirational, folks. Makes me as a searcher want to get right out there and start using your product. Why don’t you try this for your next ad:

Live Search: Use It, So Microsoft Can Make More Money Than Google

I know this is an internal memo, OK? But occasionally I see internal things from Google, plus I’ve talked to lots and lots of people at Google over the years at all levels. What you pretty much never hear is that they’re doing search to make money. The mission isn’t:

Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful so we earn money.

No, Google mission statement ends at "useful." Yes, I know inherently Google does want to earn money. I even know that when Google says doing what’s best for the user is doing what’s best for Google — that’s still a mercenary statement. It’s kind of like saying "by not being evil, people will trust us more, so we can earn more."

Still, that’s not what goes out to the troops from Google — “we have to win in search to make money.” What seems to go out is that Google wants to build excellent search products, that it wants to help people to find things, that even as the company grows in sometimes worrying ways, there’s still an essence that it’s doing search to help people first, make money second.

If Microsoft really wants to win, I think they need to find this same type of spirit. That from the top down, they need leaders who say we’re doing search because first and foremost, search is an important thing that Microsoft thinks it can do better. And that if it does search better — or at least as well as Google — then people in general will benefit from strong competition and better access to information. And yes, because aside from this, search can help Microsoft grow in the advertising space. Just don’t make that the main reason, please.

Further in the memo we get this:

In the coming years, we’ll make progress against Google in search first by upping the ante in R&D through organic innovation and strategic acquisitions. Second, we will out-innovate Google in key areas—we’re already seeing this in our maps and news search. Third, we are going to reinvent the search category through user experience and business model innovation. We’ll introduce new approaches that move beyond a white page with 10 blue links to provide customers with a customized view of their world. This is a long-term battle for our company—and it’s one we’ll continue to fight with persistence and tenacity.

Nothing new there, just stuff Microsoft has been saying. We’re just waiting to see delivery. But if they wanted to move beyond 10 blue links, why again did they let Steve Berkowitz go? He, along with Jim Lanzone, helped Ask do more than any other search engine to go beyond 10 blue links — to the degree that I’ve joked Lanzone deserves royalties on the phrase.

If Microsoft really wants to do something, how about a senior vice president who is in charge of search. Not VP of "Search, Portals & Advertising" as is the case with Satya Nadella. Not VP of "Online Services & Windows Business Group" as with Bill Veghte. Not "Advertiser and Publisher Solutions" as with Brian McAndrews. Just search. Someone at the very top who is in charge of overseeing the very best search offering Microsoft can deliver, independent of Windows Live, Office, Windows, Vista, and all the other Microsoft baggage out there.

Finally, yes, Yahoo was covered in the memo:

Yahoo: Related to Google and our search strategy are the discussions we had with Yahoo. I want to emphasize the point I’ve been making all along—Yahoo was a tactic, not a strategy. We want to accelerate our share of search queries and create a bigger pool of advertisers, and Yahoo would have helped us get there faster. But we will get there with or without Yahoo. We have the right people, we’ve made incredible progress in our technology, and we’ll continue to make smart investments that will enable us to build an industry-leading business.

Well, at least Microsoft isn’t playing the “Nah, we don’t want Yahoo” game. After coming back to Yahoo so many times, it’s pretty clear they’re going to keep trying. But that also doesn’t support the entire "tactic" pitch.

Look, acquiring a major company like Yahoo and all the hassle and integration that comes with it IS a strategic move, not a short-term tactical one. And as long as Yahoo sits out there in the limbo pool, Microsoft’s non-Yahoo strategy doesn’t remain believable. Both companies feel locked in the grip of waiting on each other. Far better if Microsoft would just get back to it being one thing or the other — do you want Yahoo? If so, go get them. If you don’t, then don’t leave the possibility sitting out there. It’s paralyzing your efforts and believability in the search space, not strengthening them.

For more, see related discussion on Techmeme.

Postscript: MICROSOFT ANALYST DAY: CEO Steve Ballmer Tries To Save His Reputation and Ballmer seeks to justify Microsoft’s bottomless-pit online spending cover Microsoft execs talking about search in today’s analyst meeting. Top points to me:

  • Apple is the only competitor attacking them on the Windows front. [In reality, as Tim O'Reilly and others have pointed out, the web itself is a platform that is challenging Windows. If I use "cloud-based" apps like Yahoo Mail, Google Docs and so on, I don't need software that's locked to one specific platform (Windows). And so yes, I can go Mac -- or Linux or whatever.]
     
  • There will be no paper in 10 years. [Things like that make it hard to believe anything that's being said. Paper's not going away.]
     
  • Search is apparently incredibly unprofitable for Microsoft right now. A big reason is how much Microsoft has to pay on R&D and marketing itself. And this is seen as an investment in the future.
     
  • Search is apparently a two horse race between Google and Microsoft, with Yahoo no longer a player. Odd, given the Yahoo horse is still in second place ahead of Microsoft by at least a furlong.
     
  • The Yahoo purchase was a tactical move, not strategic. See my comments above on this.

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Microsoft: Business Issues

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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