Looking At Microsoft’s Continued Long Game In Search

Hooked on Google from the San Jose Mercury News revisits a theme from Microsoft that I’ve reported to readers over the years. That’s how Microsoft’s failure to beat Google in search — despite millions in spending — gets the "it’s early days, give us time" defense from Microsoft. The defense is partially true, but it gets weaker and weaker as the actual years of saying that mount.

The Mercury News article comes off Microsoft chairman Bill Gates making his regular appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. Last year, his comments at CES about Google being in a "honeymoon period" riled me to the point of taking Microsoft to task over its own honeymoon period:

Continuing on, Gates said:

"Whatever they announce, they announce. They’re in their honeymoon period, and anything they announce gets hype…. They will obviously branch out beyond internet search, but I think the expectations won’t live up to reality."

Let’s spin that around. More than two years ago — in June 2003 – Microsoft announced it was getting serious about search and launched the first part of its own crawler-based search engine. We were told then that Microsoft thought there was plenty of room for improvement in search. Good spin for a newcomer trying to make room in the space, but it was also true enough.

Last February, we finally got the polished version of MSN Search. It didn’t deliver anything better than Google or Yahoo or Ask Jeeves. Now a year after launch, it still doesn’t push past Google, either in terms of relevancy as Microsoft itself admits or in terms of traffic despite a multimillion dollar ad campaign.

How long does the honeymoon last? Because if Google’s getting a long one, Microsoft’s had a long one too.

Frankly, the honeymoon continues on, to some degree. The San Jose Mercury News article was also sparked by comScore numbers for December 2006 that don’t show Microsoft gaining share in general across the web. That’s related to this chart I’ve covered in the past:

Live Search Popularity, Oct 2005-Oct 2006

The chart above shows Microsoft’s share of searches by various providers from October 2005 through October 2006. It’s been continually dropping. I’ll be updating these figures soon, but I don’t expect much change. (FYI, comScore’s search figures were just posted here and show after a rise in November 2006 — probably due to IE7 launching — Microsoft slipped slightly and has a 10.5 percent share for December 2006).

I’ve long felt Microsoft’s best chance is to be within the vertical search space. As I wrote after commenting on Gates’s honeymoon quote:

MSN Search has gotten better. There are a lot of good, talented people on that product. And the former MSN Virtual Earth — now Windows Live Local — is awesome especially for the ability to build custom maps that mix different types of business together. But it’s tiring to hear the Microsoft leadership just rip at Google rather than deliver successes that speak for themselves. CES was an opportunity for that, and it looks to have been wasted.

This year at CES, as the Mercury News article points out, Virtual Earth made it on stage:

"For Microsoft, this year, it’s a big, big milestone, because the products we’ve been working on for many years that are foundational products are now moving into the marketplace,” Gates said during his keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas.

As Gates spoke, a Microsoft employee demonstrated Virtual Earth as an example of the type of Microsoft innovation the company is pursuing. Using an Xbox controller, the employee flew through a 3-D replica of Las Vegas projected on screen.

"This is pretty fun. It’s also practical,” said Justin Hutchinson, who ran the demo during Gates’ talk. "If I’m new to town, I can get a sense of where everything is.”

Fun, yes. But I agree with one analyst that perhaps it’s not that practical:

But even people who praised the product wondered if it might exceed the needs of the average person. "It seems like for most people’s practical purposes, 2-D driving directions with a richness of detail is what they are looking for today,” said Walter Pritchard, an analyst at Cowen and Co.

True, but then again Google Earth has a healthy active community. Google Maps, I’d argue, gained huge popularity because of the satellite views it offers which are far more fun than practical. But these things can build up mindshare, to the point people learn to turn to the products when they do want the practical stuff (even though when in the UK, I find more and more Google Maps directions are terrible — but more on that later).

Why Ask.com’s CEO left to join Microsoft is a sidebar to the Microsoft story, with senior VP Steve Berkowitz who oversees Live.com talking about turning Microsoft around, why he feels being the best in search isn’t as important as having that emotional connection with searchers (true) and other issues. Berkowitz Describes Steering Microsoft As Cruise Ship & Ask.com As Rowboat from us in December covers a similar interview with Berkowitz in the New York Times last month.

Back to vertical search, Microsoft hooking up with Hollywood from the Los Angeles Times covers how MSN Video hopes to gain key content deals and gain users. The story says comScore reports MSN Video is the fifth most visited video site behind Google’s YouTube, Yahoo Video, AOL Video and Google Video. The LA Times did a similar story about Google partnering with Hollywood and content owners last week.

Related Topics: Channel: Video | Microsoft: General | Microsoft: MSN Video | Stats: comScore | Stats: Popularity


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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