Google’s a split-personality company. On the one hand, it wants people to believe that it could lose its customers at any time, lest it get viewed as a monopoly. But question its ability on the technical front, and the Big G will go off on you like nobody’s business. That’s what happened this week to Microsoft.
Cast your mind back to the end of January, when Google briefly flagged the entire internet as malware. Google CEO Eric Schmidt made a point of mentioning recently how this caused people to head over to Yahoo and other competitors.
See, Google really needs as much evidence as possible that it could “lose” in the highly competitive search game at any moment. That will help keep those lobbying that Google’s a monopoly — helped with Microsoft’s support — more off its back.
Jessica Vascellaro did a nice job with Schmidt’s statement, reporting how it was true that Google lost traffic during the malware problem but also how as soon as it ended, things went right back to normal.
No doubt we’ll continue to see Google push that consumers might leave it at any moment, coming up with whatever data it can find to back this. The fact remains that it is a habit at this point that few are going to break, unless Google itself breaks.
Now let’s talk Microsoft. Remember when the internal Kumo search engine came out earlier this month? The screenshots showed us that Kumo was testing categorizing results into topics plus giving more focus on related searches. There was some buzz that Google might not be able to do the same.
Then last Friday, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that his company has an advantage over Google in that Microsoft can experiment with search, while Google has to play safe:
“Google does have to be all things to all people,” Ballmer said yesterday in an interview in New York. “Our search does not need to be all things to all people.”
I got a chuckle out of that, remarking on Twitter
ballmer, google can and does experiment & microsoft’s search problem ain’t that you don’t take enough risks
It is true that Microsoft can be more risky, as I wrote in Tough Love For Microsoft Search. But I also wrote that Google also experiments all the time and introduces changes.
That brings us to how Google just hammered Microsoft for suggesting that it was weak. My The Google Wonder Wheel & Other Search Refinement Features Get Live Test article covers how Google’s running an experiment that lets anyone narrow content to particular topics or get more search suggestions than the Kumo screen shots show. Convenient how this test just happened to go live this week, eh?
Still think they can’t experiment, Ballmer? Almost as if to go overboard, Google tossed out the “Wonder Wheel” graphical refinement tool that few searchers would likely use, if it was released to everyone. But it looks supercool, and Microsoft doesn’t have one (yet).
Earlier this week, Google also conveniently rolled out improved search suggestions and longer listing descriptions to anyone searching at Google. In many of the mainstream articles I read, these changes were positioned as a sign that Google could take on whatever Kumo-esque changes Microsoft might rollout.
The bottom line is that while Google wants to be seen as weak in the search marketplace, that playbook gets tossed aside if you question its technical abilities. When Yahoo rolled out a larger index than Google briefly back in 2005, Google went nuts until they could defuse any doubts that they weren’t as comprehensive. When Google knew that Cuil was going to play the size game again last July, it conveniently came out with a blog post that it “knew” about 1 trillion web items. When Jimmy Wales and Jason Calacanis pushed that Google would lose in search for not being “human” enough, it pushed back in various ways to say it did have human signals in its search results.
With this latest round, I kind of feel sorry for Microsoft. It poked at Google with a stick, and in short order, Google took a baseball bat to Microsoft’s head. But as I keep saying, this is a search war that Microsoft is involved with. It’s deadly serious. If Ballmer it going to talk about “advantages” he thinks his company has over Google in search, he needs to be damn sure they really are advantages. Otherwise, he can expect to have more cans of whoopass opened up on him by Google.