Tough Love For Microsoft Search

Back in June, I spoke at Microsoft as part of a regular series for those involved with its webmaster tools group and anyone generally interested in search. My talk was called “Tough Love For Microsoft Search,” and I covered various reasons why I felt the company has generally failed to make headway in the space. The core premise is that Microsoft as a company isn’t succeeding at search because it views search as a task it has to do, rather than one it really wants to do. The article below is an adaptation of that presentation. There’s even a movie.

Let me say from the outset that there are those within Microsoft who DO love search — in particular, those involved with the search products. I also want them to succeed. Very much so. Google does need a counter-balance, and Microsoft has a quality search product that could provide this. But sadly, I also feel the same people within Microsoft who are so diligently trying to succeed are let down by a company culture overall that sees the internet and search in particular as a kind of sideshow.

The search group at Microsoft doesn’t need tough love, and I apologized at the time I spoke that they were the ones getting my grim message (and I apologize again if they feel it now). My hope instead was that it might filter up and out through to the rest of Microsoft, especially to the top executives, and ultimately help Microsoft succeed.

This piece on Microsoft also completes a sort of trilogy that I’ve done this year on where the major search engines are headed, as we go into 2009. For those who want to fully understand Microsoft’s challenge, I recommend also reading my other two pieces: Yahoo The Failure: Myth Versus Reality and The Google Hive Mind.

Where’s Ballmer? Not On The Front Lines

Let me start out with a personal tale of Microsoft not really getting search. As I said during my talk, this is also where I sound like a big-headed asshole. I hope I’m not. I’m trying not to be, but making this personal point probably comes off that way.

I’ve been covering search a long time — 13 years now. There’s no one I know of who has covered it longer, in as much depth, on (what I hope is) a professional level. I was covering search before Microsoft had a search engine. I was covering it before Google existed. It’s fair to say I have some degree of stature for those trying to reach an audience concerned about search.

One of the ways the search engines have tried to connect have been through the search marketing conferences I’ve organized for 10 years now. I’ve been fortunate to have “keynote conversations” with the top executives from major search companies over the years, including:

  • Ask.com’s Barry Diller
  • Yahoo’s Jerry Yang
  • Google’s Eric Schmidt
  • Google’s Sergey Brin

For nearly four years now, I’ve diligently tried to get Microsoft to have either Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer do a similar keynote conversation. No luck. I ask well before each major conference. I know the PR folks at Microsoft do the best they can. But bottom line? Showing up at a search conference I’ve organized hasn’t been deemed worth the time once in four years. Not once.

I asked three times, for three different shows, this year. They weren’t available. And yet, Ballmer and Gates were able to make it out together for The D Conference this year.

Walt Mossberg (half the dynamic duo behind The D Conference along with the talented Kara Swisher) is a technology journalism giant whose positive review can help make, or negative review help break, a product. Showing up on stage at his show seems a natural for Microsoft’s top duo. They recognize how influential he can be for getting the word out about Microsoft’s core products.

Me? I’m just some search guy that if they met, they’d have to be briefed about beforehand. Then again, that briefing might include this kind quote from Walt Mossberg in 2005 about my work:

If you care about Google, and the search business in general, there are two blogs to follow. One is John Battelle’s Searchblog, at battellemedia.com. The other is the Search Engine Watch blog, by search guru Danny Sullivan

So no, I’m not Walt Mossberg. But I am one of the two people that Walt told his audience to pay attention to when it comes to search (and these days, I write here at Search Engine Land, of course). If search really is supposed to be one of Microsoft’s core products, then yes, it’s not so much a stretch to think Gates or Ballmer would make an appearance at one of my events.

It’s not just me. No major search conference has ever seen either man make an appearance. Over the years, I’ve noted them individually turning up at fairly minor computer security, software developer or financial conferences. But make a real effort to get in front of that search audience they’ve said is so important to them and their company’s future? Hasn’t happened.

Interviewing Barry Diller was an incredible experience for me if only to watch his reaction before we took to the stage. This was in 2006, and Ask.com had just relaunched with high aspirations. Diller took in the 2,000+ people in the keynote hall, turned to me with a look of wonder and amazement on his face and asked, “Who are these people?”

“Those are your customers,” I replied — and you could see how what everyone talked to him about in the abstract, the search advertisers who fueled Google’s fortune — was becoming a human reality far more than he envisioned.

I talked to many attendees after Diller’s talk. Their impression of Ask.com went way up because the man — a legend — had taken the time to come out and be with them. Having someone like Diller appear — or Eric Schmidt, or Sergey Brin or Jerry Yang — means a huge amount to the search marketers who still struggle to win budgets or respect for their work. It makes them feel like they’ve made it; that someone recognizes their value.

Ballmer leads Microsoft now. I desperately wish he’d get out to a search conference, because he needs that Diller experience. He needs to be away from carefully orchestrated events hosted by Microsoft itself or tech events where search is a sideshow and step right in to pump up that key audience he’s interested in, the search marketers. And the search marketers, as I’ve consistently told Microsoft, would genuinely take Microsoft more seriously for the respect such participation would show them.

Perhaps I burn my bridges by writing about the struggle to get him to appear; perhaps I just enable some other conference to benefit from his appurtenance if my point strikes home. So be it. Microsoft needs him out on the real front lines.

The Search Chore

The fact that Ballmer hasn’t made the time is just part of my feeling that search is a “chore” or “homework” that Microsoft feels from the top down that it has to do. If indeed search is Ballmer’s “favorite business,” as he told the BBC in October, it sure doesn’t show in my reading from afar.

Microsoft at its core is an operating system and software company. These still generate tons of revenue. Then along comes Google out of nowhere making all this money off of search and starting to encroach into the Microsoft OS/software areas. You could almost hear the groan from Redmond. “Well, I guess we have to do this search thing.”

Consider these two taglines from Google and Microsoft that each has continually repeated over the past year or so:

  • Google: Search, Ads & Apps
  • Microsoft: Software + Services

Where’s search in Microsoft’s tagline? Right — non-existent. I guess it’s a service. Well, maybe it’s software. Who knows — but I do know that with Google, it comes first. Does anyone wonder why Google succeeds at it?

Remember also that Google didn’t get into search to make money. OK, yes — Larry Page and Sergey Brin clearly hoped to be financially successful. But first and foremost, they thought the challenge of improving search was important. They thought search could be made better, and that motivated them to develop Google, assuming they’d find a way to pay for the service later. Microsoft didn’t get into search to help anyone as their primary motive — they got into it to help themselves.

Consider this quote from Ballmer recently in the Wall Street Journal:

The fundamental basis for doing the search deal with Yahoo has to do with critical mass in the advertising marketplace. It doesn’t have to do with technology, or any of these other things, it really is a market phenomenon. Together we would have more advertisers….which means we’d have more relevant ads on our page. We’d have higher monetization levels possible in front of us because there would be more people bidding on more key words. Most importantly, Google would have perhaps a real credible competitor sooner.

I literally sighed when reading it. First, there’s the continued focus on Microsoft’s search efforts being because it wants the advertising money, a repeating theme from various executives. I’ve read quote after quote after quote like this. We get it — Microsoft thinks there’s money in search and wants to grab some of that. But so do lots of people. Just because you’re Microsoft doesn’t mean that you have some type of manifest destiny to receive it. In particular, it’s a terrible signal to tell the world that this is a primary reason you’re doing search, to grab some of the advertising cash away from Google. It would be like Apple trying to sell Macs by telling the world too much money is being spent on Windows PCs.

Instead, Apple pitches the consumer advantages of the Mac. Similarly, Microsoft should be consistently pitching more than anything else that they are in search to improve life for consumers. Yes, on many occasions, Microsoft has talked about how much room there is for improving search. But that’s not the predominant reason that comes across. Consider this quote from Bill Gates back in 2005:

We’ve been in the search business even before Google was around. The commitment we made is to build unique search technology across the board. And if you look at the Microsoft Research things that we’ve had breakthroughs in–natural language, document analysis, personalization, image analysis, language translation–our research agenda will allow us to take today’s search from ourselves and Google, and make what we have today look like a joke. And a lot of that will be built into applications like Office or the Windows shell. I see our desktop search offering–I think every review I’ve seen has rated it far better than what Google is coming out with….

So we want to compete on the desktop because that’s a key innovation area for Windows. We want to compete in the cloud because we think the competition between ourselves and Google and Yahoo will improve things.

If we thought somebody was doing the best possible job that could ever be done in search and there wasn’t some big revenue out there, maybe we wouldn’t do it, but quite to the contrary. Whether it’s understanding maps or virtual worlds or document analysis, today’s search is nothing, and we’ve got the software technology that will drive it to those new levels, as well as being a very significant business.

I’ve bolded the key parts — even back then, you have Microsoft saying they wouldn’t do search unless they saw it as a big revenue maker. So they dived in. And four years later from when Gates gave that quote — a generation or two in internet years — and Microsoft has failed to substantially improve search as promised.

Moreover, Microsoft has pulled back from important search projects that weren’t deemed to be big business, such as book search (see Microsoft Burns Book Search – Lacks “High Consumer Intent”). In contrast, Google started book search primarily because it recognized that there is important knowledge contained in books that should be searchable. Google’s encountered much headlined legal issues as part of its scanning efforts, but rather than cut and run, it stuck with it. Ironically, the recent settlement of the book search lawsuits against Google means that book search might turn into a nice profit center for the company — and Microsoft, which pitches so much that it needs to be a competitive balance to Google — bailed out.

Back to Ballmer’s quote about Yahoo, a sidenote. More advertisers do not mean more relevant ads, and it’s downright disturbing to hear someone so high up say such a thing. Google could abandon things like quality score and ad relevancy and get more advertisers. Microsoft could loosen its own controls and do the same. That doesn’t mean relevancy would go up.

No, the fundamental reason for doing a deal with Yahoo is that they have roughly twice as many searches happening there than at Microsoft. They have more people using their search engine, and if you have a large audience, that’s what attracts the advertisers. To be a real credible Google competitor, Microsoft needs a bigger audience, not more advertisers.

Search Isn’t Software

Another difference I’ve noted between Google and Microsoft is that is that Microsoft seems to think of search as a software. Live Search has features that come out according to release schedules, as if search is a software product that gets regular upgrades. There was a time in the late 90s when other search engines operated this way — Inktomi most of all. But that largely died off.

Google doesn’t seem to work to any schedule. New features get released whenever they’re deemed ready, without concern about it being in the first quarter, second quarter, etc.

I don’t know if this software view Microsoft has hurt them or not. It’s just an observation of the differences between the two companies. But given that Google’s winning, it might make sense to toss the “release” and “upgrade” view of search out the window.

Somewhat related, Microsoft is renowned for diligently upgrading software with improved releases until it “finally gets it right.” I think this causes many to assume that search will be the same thing — Microsoft will just keep plugging away at it until it succeeds, as it usually does. Again, search isn’t software — plus time is short. Anyone holding this attitude should rethink their assumptions. And for those who look at the Xbox as a way that Microsoft broke into a new market through diligence and willingness to invest lots of money — what’s the Halo for search? What’s the must-have game that will get people searching with Microsoft? Is there one?

Forget You’re Microsoft; Forget Integration

One of the biggest impressions I get from my years covering Microsoft — as well as being a user of Microsoft products — is that the company feels all of its products must reinforce each other. Even if it’s not an overt requirement, it still lurks there showing its face in various ways.

Case in point. Google does a Santa tracker in conjunction with NORAD. Microsoft comes along, declares the NORAD tracker is kind of stale (it’s not; there’s a difference between something being stale and a NORAD tradition that stretches back over 50 years) and puts out a 3D version of Santa’s workshop. But to use it, you need Virtual Earth 3D — which doesn’t work for Mac users. Then it rolls out its own Santa tracker, which also didn’t work for me on a Mac.

Too picky? Well, I’ve seen other Microsoft search products over the years. They’ve tended not to run well in Firefox at first, if they’re supported at all. Search marketers using adCenter had to wait a couple of months after the official launch for Firefox to be supported, for example.

In contrast, I rarely feel a Google product is somehow tied into promoting other Google products. Yes, there is some cross-promotion, and that’s increasing. Yes, the Google Toolbar offers its own URL bookmarking service, rather than Delicious. But for the most part, as I covered much more in my Google Hive Mind article, Google products tend to standalone much more from each other.

For Microsoft to succeed in search, I want them to forget how search integrates with Windows or Internet Explorer (sidenote: after being integrated in various ways for a decade now, clearly that’s not going to be a Google-killing tactic). Forget how search might tie into Office. Use Macs. Use Firefox. Hell, use Google Chrome. I want search products that succeed on their own.

Fix The Damn Brand!

Can you imagine going into a war, calling upon people to support your cause, but not knowing the name of your country? Or having a name that people simply couldn’t identify with your cause?

Make no mistake; Microsoft is in a search war with Google. It’s a serious one, with billions of dollars at stake, and it’s flying multiple flags that no one recognizes. The company spent over a decade building up the MSN brand, only to decide in late 2005 that “Live” would be its flagship brand. The failure of that brand to take off is widely recognized by many inside and outside Microsoft.

Remember, the dissent Yahoo investor Eric Jackson who was so convinced that Yahoo’s woes would be solved by a sale to Microsoft? It’s telling on multiple levels that months after Microsoft’s initial overture to buy Yahoo, Jackson hadn’t even tried Microsoft’s own search (which seems like basic due diligence). When he did — and this is a motivated investor — he couldn’t find the damn thing. Reported eWeek:

I had never used Microsoft search before a couple of weeks ago. I sat down to try it and then realized I had no idea what to type in. I tried Microsoft.com, but the only search bar was to help me search MSFT internal directories. I then remembered seeing some advertisement for ‘Live Search,’ so I tried Livesearch.com. It was some spam site. Finally, I tried Live.com, and the results were no good. I will never use it again. When I want to Google or find Yahoo, I know what to punch in. Simple as that,” Jackson said.

To this day, when I write about Live Search, I often preface with Microsoft to make it “Microsoft Live Search,” so that new readers will understand that this is the Microsoft search product. Live Search alone could be owned by anyone. Back when it was still called Windows Live Search, I was writing “Microsoft Windows Live Search.” It was absurd (and frighteningly, might be returning again).

But if you think MSN is dead, think again. Microsoft’s distribution deal with Sun that begins next month will be pushing the MSN Toolbar, not the Live Search Toolbar. Meanwhile, when I installed Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D recently, it wanted to make MSN my home page, not Live.com. More confusion.

Now fully consider the type of brand that Microsoft is taking on:

How About Some Google Cigarettes?

Google’s not just a brand; it’s a habit, and unlike cigarettes, a generally good one. Both myself and Gord Hotchkiss among others have characterized it this way for some time (see Gord’s excellent Human Hardware: The Subconscious Side of Search for more about the Google habit). Against this brand, Microsoft sends the Live brand up over the trenches to be slaughtered — along with the occasional ragtag MSN soldiers joining in.

The brand needs to be fixed, and fast. Sadly, there’s no signs that this is going to happen. Sure, there are the rumors of Kumo being a new brand that might come in (and see here). But then again, there was an entire Windows Live upgrade and expansion recently, which though separate from Live Search still gives the strong impression that Microsoft is committed to pushing Live no matter how dead it actually is.

The strongest universal brand that Microsoft has is its own name, “Microsoft.” Why doesn’t the company just go with this? Everyone knows Microsoft. It’s instantly recognizable. It has far more chance of winning than Live.

Microsoft Search

Related to this, why doesn’t Microsoft show that it really is committed to winning the search wars by making probably the most substantial change it could do to boost traffic — drop virtually everything from the Microsoft.com home page except for a search box?

I’m far from the first to suggest this. From stats I’ve seen over the years, the Microsoft home page is one of the most visited in the world. Google manages to offer a variety of services while keeping the main focus of its own home page on the search box. Microsoft could do it too.

Certainly it’s starting to change. From March, the home page looked like this:

Microsoft Home Page: March 2008

Sorry about the big missing chunk in the middle. That’s some graphic that Microsoft was delivering that the Internet Archive and/or my Internet Explorer 8 browser is failing to show. The important thing is where the search box is, that small box in the top right hand corner that I’m pretty sure performed only a search against Microsoft’s own web site.

Currently, notice that the search box has gotten larger, centered and most important defaults to searching the web:

Microsoft Home Page: December 2008

Still, the bulk of the page is focused on a graphic. Dump it. Make the search box the focus. Drop the navigation below it. Fight the war with a decent brand from the highest ground you have, if you want to win.

Forget The Consumer Advertising

Microsoft has spent millions trying to advertise Live Search to the general public, and it hasn’t worked. No visible uptick. That doesn’t surprise me. I have never seen any search competitor win using TV ads. Northern Light, Excite, Ask, HotBot — it just doesn’t work.

It’s not for a lack of creative ads. Consider these from my personal archives, all from 1998:

Many of these are funny (I love the old porn guy who “comes up for everything.”) You can see that the agencies involved researched the problems of search at the time and how to communicate that their clients’ products would solve them. And the search engines themselves weren’t bad. But they didn’t take off because of these ads. Still, new ad agencies will keep coming along and suggest yet new campaigns (as with Ask), and those won’t likely go anywhere either.

What has worked? In my experience, incentives and word-of-mouth.

In the past, the incentives were about paying site owners to push a search product. Many search engines — including Google back in 2000 — at one point paid site owners a few cents for each search conducted on their own web sites. Google AdSense For Search is a continuation of this.

Microsoft certainly is trying on the incentive front. There’s Live Search Cashback, which offers rebates for products purchased through Live Search. I’m not convinced about Cashback’s “success,” as the numbers given out recently lacked much of a baseline to measure anything against. The program still seems immensely complicated, and Microsoft took a huge black-eye on Black Friday, when those thinking they’d get big discounts on HP computers failed to receive these. But it’s something.

The SearchPerks toolbar giveaway is a simpler program. However, the incentives might not be enough, and to date, it also doesn’t seem to be registering much buzz. But again, it’s something.

Word-of-mouth is far more powerful, in my opinion. Google was built on it. It was a great product that took off like wildfire on the web. Distribution deals certainly helped Google, but I don’t buy into them alone being what “made” Google. It was far from the only search engine to cut distribution deals. For one example, Excite gained important distribution via Netscape, but that didn’t save the company in the long-term.

Unfortunately, Microsoft gets little word-of-mouth for its search products, in my view. Did you realize that Microsoft Live Search Mobile has a pretty cool voice recognition program like the iPhone? It pleasantly surprised me when I tried it back in the twilight of my life as a Windows Mobile user (I’m all iPhone now). It also came out at the end of 2007, a year before Google got all the recent attention about its voice search app for the iPhone.

How do you get the word out about things like that or how do you tell people about how Live Search offered custom map annotations at least a year before Google rolled out its own My Maps?

We cover it, of course. But my pet project for Microsoft would be a roadshow. Literally go out on tour, to malls, shopping centers or any place where “real” people are. Show them features like xRank pages for celebrities and others, how Microsoft makes it exceptionally easy to get a ski/snowboard report and so on. Take people by the hand.

Like others, I’ve seen Microsoft’s commercials showing them apparently doing this to prop up Windows/Vista against the onslaught of the Mac. Skip the commercials showing the roadshows. Just do the shows.

Distribution Opportunities

Credit to Microsoft, it’s playing the distribution game seriously. It tied up an HP deal that begins next month; then did a distribution deal with Sun last month; rumors persist that it has cut a deal with Dell that would replace Google as Dell’s partner. Not much Microsoft can do about Firefox, given that Firefox continues to absurdly exclude Microsoft as a default option and Google, not surprisingly, shows no sign of trying to change Firefox’s mind despite its position as chief moneybags for the Mozilla Foundation.

The problem with distribution deals for Microsoft is that they don’t stop the Google habit. Give someone a new computer set by default to search at Microsoft, and I think there’s an excellent chance they’ll still go to Google. I base this from the many emails over the years I’ve gotten from confused searchers who don’t understand why some adware or other program has shifted their defaults. They want to get back to Google. And if they do arrive at the Google home page, Google can merrily pop-up a suggestion that they switch back. Distribution won’t be a cure-all, though it’s something Microsoft is right to try.

Facebook remains perhaps a hope. Microsoft finally got added as a search option with its social networking partner in October. But the vast majority of searches on Facebook remain for people on Facebook itself, the company tells me. I wouldn’t bank on Facebook being an instant savior for Microsoft.

Product Consistency

I’ve lost track of the number of times Microsoft has done some redesign. Redesigns make me nervous. They’re like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. When SS AltaVista was going through its own Titanic-like plunge into obscurity, it redesigned six times within 18 months. None of it helped.

Over at Google, in the past two years, it has introduced more new elements than I’ve ever seen before. And yet, they’re not that noticeable. You don’t dramatically think, “Wow — what happened to Google?” (SearchWiki is a notable exception, and loud critics have led to a promise of an opt-out — but there’s hardly been a mass outcry or abandonment of Google).  Having fewer users, Microsoft can be more risky — probably should be more risky. But not to excess, and not just to be trying something new.

Executive Consistency

If Microsoft is in a war, it suffers by switching generals every time they seem to get up to speed. Every 18 months or so, someone new seems to be in charge. I’m reassured that Satya Nadella is still there after coming on in the middle of last year to oversee engineering efforts. But gone earlier this year was top exec Kevin Johnson. Losing Brad Goldberg this month on the marketing side for Live Search was more worrying. Seeing Brian McAndrews go, when he was leading the charge of Microsoft’s display ambitions, worry again. Dr. Qi Lu coming on with his experience at Yahoo should be reassuring. Then again, he’s to do a much different job than he did at Yahoo — and we’ve also seen another search vet with great credentials come in only to depart without much change, Steve Berkowitz. So it’s watch and see.

Goodness knows I hope things stabilize. Microsoft cannot afford to keep losing experience and having new people go back to the drawing board each time to relearn the wheel. Consider just some of the people they face over at Google. Marissa Mayer on consumer products; Susan Wojcicki on ad products; Tim Armstrong on ad sales in North America. Each nearly has about decade of time in their areas — that’s like 100 years of internet “dog years” each. And they are only some of the long-term Google execs out there.

Yes, there’s something to be said for fresh blood, fresh approaches, reorganizations, sure. But there’s also a huge amount of experience that Google has, blind alleys it will avoid. That cliché about someone forgetting more than what someone else even knows? Totally applicable when it comes to Google versus Microsoft.

Developers & Webmasters

Google has massively expanded its support for site owners over the past three years, which I feel was a huge boon to the company’s reputation issues. Site owners are influencers, and they are also keenly aware of the weaknesses in a search engine — a type of canary in the coal mine, if you will. Similarly, Microsoft has been diligently developing its own webmaster support tools, which I applaud. They’ve actually surpassed Yahoo in what they provide. That leadership, like many other areas, won’t translate into a Google killer, but it’s part of a puzzle that should help.

Recently, Microsoft expanded its API support. My fear here is that Microsoft might be assuming that its legions of software developers that help with software applications will somehow jump into magically creating massive search traffic. I don’t watch the search developer space closely enough to say this won’t happen. But despite the many who develop using Google products, I haven’t seen that this has been a lynchpin in Google’s overall consumer success. Courting developers makes sense for Microsoft, but again, to me it’s a part of the puzzle, not the complete solution.

The Long Term Game

Microsoft is not 5 years into its challenge to win at search, a figure you often hear. It’s now 11 years into it (see Microsoft’s “Third Era” Of Search Begins). The 5 year figure marks when the company made the mistake, in my view, of deciding to build its own technology from scratch rather than enter the race by buying someone else’s car (Yahoo or Ask would have worked). It has lost years of time it couldn’t afford because of that decision. And all along, it keeps at the mantra that search is a “long term game,” so give it time.

It’s had time and has kept losing share. A Google killer is unlikely to emerge, in my opnion, for the next few years (if at all). Google is simply too powerful and secure in its search position. But there’s a real likelihood that if Microsoft keeps seeing its search share decline, a Microsoft killer might come along — some start-up that manages to gain more share than Microsoft itself.

Buying Yahoo would have helped on the traffic front. Absorbing the entire company was fraught with integration issues. Taking over just the Yahoo search business made more sense, but only if Microsoft would ultimately fight to oust Yahoo as a top portal as well. Providing search for others hasn’t proven to be a long-term business (ask Inktomi or FAST about this).

If it’s true that Microsoft decided the price was too high — after Microsoft itself set Yahoo’s valuation so high — I still think the company might regret that “savings” down the line. I’ve seen various articles discussing Ballmer as a genius who saved his company from overspending. That’s true now, but it’s also hindsight. He certainly didn’t say a reason for pulling out was because the economic downturn few anticipated would make Yahoo cheaper (the downturn also has hurt Microsoft’s own stock, which means the deal’s value would have been less than often quoted these days, since it was for half cash, half Microsoft stock).

Instead, at the end of 2008, the on-again, off-again courtship/uncertainty over Yahoo continues. Microsoft declares that it has moved on, yet it also signals it’s still interested in some type of deal with Yahoo. When the new Yahoo CEO is in place, it seems likely some Microsoft deal will finally happen. And after all the regulatory hurdles are cleared (you bet, Google’s going to fight back with its own lobbying), Microsoft will have lost even more time.

So what to do? I don’t have a blueprint for success. My suggestions above might work; might not. I remain suspicious of any “grand overview” of why things do or don’t work at companies, including my own. I hope I’m more right than wrong. One key takeaway is something I’ve alluded to several times above. Don’t expect some killer solution to emerge. I think Microsoft will have to try many different things and hope for incremental results on several fronts to gain ground against Google. Yahoo would be a huge boost, if it could be executed well and quickly.

More than anything else, I want that clear signal that Microsoft is fully in the fight. Don’t tell me; show me. We’ve had enough being told about all the grand things to come. Do it. Change the brand; give the home page a search focus; stop talking about those ad dollars and talk more about providing better search for consumers. This would show me that as an entire company, Microsoft really is competing with all its heart-and-soul, a corporate shift I feel it must make to succeed.

Postscript: See State Of Search: Google Will Stay Strong Despite Bing & Yahoo, which revisits some of the points in this article six months later.

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Features: Analysis | Microsoft: Business Issues | Microsoft: Employees | Microsoft: General | Top News

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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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  • http://thenoisychannel.com/ Daniel Tunkelang

    I’ve wondered over the years why Microsoft struggles so much with search, especially given the high-quality work coming out of the research group. But I think you’ve nailed it: their hearts, as a company, are simply not in it.

    I have major creative differences with Google as to where search should go–in fact, I’m giving a talk at Google next week on the subject. But their passion for search, and the success that their passion has brought them, is indisputable.

    As for all the would-be Google killers, I can hope they’ll do better than tilt at windmills by pursuing incremental improvement that at best will be ignored, at worst ridiculed. My humble advice: go after the problems where there is a huge amount of room for improvement.

    http://thenoisychannel.com/2008/08/07/where-google-isnt-good-enough/

  • gabriele

    Great article. It put to shame the “dynamic duo” that has a big media group behind but greatly lacks the insight and knowledge to write anything like this.
    In my opinion MS is lying when they say they have the technology and they only wanted the audience of Yahoo for the ads marketplace.
    If one lesson was to be learned from goggle is that at some level of scale you can’t have the technology if you don’t have the audience. So for MS reaching a critical mass is something that has lots to do with its core business and it’s an important bid for its own existence in the future.

  • davemc500hats

    awesome piece.

    yeah, i think the “Live” brand is still-born too, but strangely no one over there gets that. either MSN or Microsoft would be fine. and they should have just bought Ask 3-4 years ago (even via IAC), and they could have failed at a much lower cost / less time.

    but these days i see no way in hell they are catching up, even if they do some half-assed Yahoo search deal. maybe they should just let Facebook try to figure it out, and hope they have enough cash left to buy the rest of FB someday.

    riiiight.

  • MrBill

    Awesome article Danny. As usual, very insightful and balanced.

    Of course I can attest to your tenure and persistence regarding MSN, er, Live, Search.

    I especially liked this: “[...] Microsoft as a company isn’t succeeding at search because it views search as a task it has to do, rather than one it really wants to do.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s all about the dollars, the (increasing) threat to the MS platform from Google and the Web in general, and the humiliation of getting its clock cleaned by you-know-who. But where is the true passion for search? As you say, it seems like it’s a means to many ends, with the ends being increasingly vague as Google sets its sights ever more broadly.

    And, as it was when I was there, the passion for search isn’t lacking within the search team itself. They care about winning, and they care a lot.

    But one must ask, as you have, how likely is it that a company that doesn’t see itself as a search company, first and foremost, can beat one who does?

  • ericlussier

    Thanks for sharing your insight, Danny. Those ads were great!

    It would be great for MS to stop talking about money at the very top, but it’s an issue that most companies suffer from. It’s the difference between the leadership message coming from a money man vs a product person, a la Jobs, Bezos or the Google crew (- Schmidt).

    Live was always too generic a brand name for my taste but I guess that was the point. I certainly agree that they could have saved themselves a decade by leveraging the Microsoft brand.

    BTW, default search on microsoft.com is still internal and comes up with some terrible results if you mistake it for a web-wide search.

    Type in “britney spears” and hit enter.
    http://search.microsoft.com/results.aspx?form=MSHOME&mkt=en-US&setlang=en-US&q=britney%20spears

  • brooksjordan

    Great post, Danny. I learned a lot.

    MSFT should hire you for that roadshow . . . and more.

  • http://aplawrence.com pcunix

    Microsoft has NEVER understood the Internet. They outright ignored it for years and refused to adopt TCP/IP because they wanted to control how Windows machines were networked.

    That whole “control” attitude is their biggest problem and of course it is why they can only embrace the Internet like most of us would embrace a porcupine. The Internet represents tremendous danger: it can destroy them.

    And some of us wouldn’t shed a single tear if it did.

  • yodaluke

    Sometimes the biggest opportunities come from knowing exactly what the challenges are. I think Danny spelled out both for Microsoft. Awesome.

  • owen_P

    My impression with Microsoft and Live search is that they seem to want to run before they can walk. Working in SEO for several years I know how easy it is to game Live search, and it will be as long as they continue to make basic algorithymic mistakes.

    Using clever marketing tactics does not work if your core product isn’t any good. I’m not saying that Live Search is aweful, because it’s not. However it’s not as good as the alternative, until there is some kind of focus on raising the quality of the SERPs then they are not going to compete.

    If I was in charge of Live search I would do three things:
    1. Drop Paid Inclusion, injecting reslts into the SERPs only serves to create distrust in the algorithym.
    2. Inject cash into the spam team, it’s obviously needed.
    3. Refocuss Live Search, so it is no lonjger seen by Microsft as a potential cash cow but instead a way of furthering the internet for everyone. If they can make something that geniunly helps people get more form the internet the $$$ will follow.

  • gard_jenssen

    Lots of crisp insights in this article, Danny, thx for sharing. Still, I can’t help thinking that you miss out on maybe the most important problem all Google competitors face: Their search algorithms and the relevancy of their results simply (still?) can’t compete with Google’s.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Owen, Microsoft doesn’t have a paid inclusion program. They ended that back in 2004 as part of the release of their own search engine. Only Yahoo still runs paid inclusion, among the major search engines.

    Gard, yes — core relevancy is an issue, and I did have another part that got into the many signals that Google’s able to tap into if it wants in terms of site popularity that gives it an advantage. Just ran out of time and felt I had already written so much. For more on that, see:

    Google: Master Of Closing The Loop?
    http://searchengineland.com/google-master-of-closing-the-loop-10921

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