A Battle Plan for MSN Search: Innovation and Integration, not Inundation

First published March 17, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

We know Microsoft wants to win the search battle. Bill Gates has gone on record repeatedly and publicly saying his biggest business regret is not having recognized the importance of Internet search soon enough (this would be the same Bill Gates who said the Internet would never amount to much). And during the Super Bowl, an ad for MSN Search invited millions to try the new, more precise, more powerful search engine.

Rumor has it that Microsoft has a gargantuan battle chest set aside for further advertising. The intention is clear. We will keep being hammered by MSN Search ads until we give in and give up on Google.

But at the Search Engine Strategies Conference in New York, Jupiter Media Analyst Gary Stein reminded us of something. Google got to where they are with a total ad budget of… $0. They just built a better search engine.

I think the future success of MSN lies not in showcase television ads, but in giving us a reason to switch.

Google Is Not Invincible It sometimes appears that Google has a stranglehold on search. Take a room full of people pretty much anywhere on the planet and it’s a safe bet that most of them will be Google users. But recent research has shown that there may be a few stress fractures showing in our love affair with Google. I don’t think it’s because Google has done anything overtly to cause us to look elsewhere. It’s just that they don’t have the clear performance advantage they once did.

Again, Gary Stein had an excellent point. There’s no significant user pain involved in switching search engines. You don’t have to reinstall software, reformat files, or change computers. One day you’re using Google, and the next, MSN. It’s that easy. In fact, you can switch search engines in the middle of a task. Millions of people do it every day. Google’s brand equity can disappear in the time it takes to click a mouse.

Putting Search One Click Away In any type of measurement of search engine market share, there emerges an interesting contradiction that speaks of another vulnerable area for Google. If you do a survey and ask people what their preferred search engine is, my bet is that at least 75 percent or more will say Google. In the last survey we did with 1,600 participants, the number was almost 83 percent. Yet, when you look at Nielsen or comScore’s market share numbers, Google ends up with somewhere between 35 and 45 percent of the market. So, if three out of four people prefer Google, why don’t they own a proportionate share of searches?

The reason is that we’re basically lazy. If we’re on MSN and a search box is handy, we won’t bother going to Google. This is one reason why the battle of the search toolbar heated up so quickly. It also points out the precariousness of Google’s position. Yes, we love Google, but ask us to spend another three to four seconds to type in the URL and we’ll head off with the first search opportunity that catches our eye. Online, brand love is a very fickle thing.

It’s Time to Raise the Bar, Again What we really want is a better way to search. Something that gets us just the destination and information we want, quickly, seamlessly, and, while you’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to wow us with some new innovation as well. I think we’re on the threshold of another breakthrough. It’s time for a giant leap forward in search. There are a number of startups that are knocking on the door, but we’re waiting for a search site with enough market traction to really up the ante with search.

The blizzard of incremental improvements we’ve seen coming out of the major players is nice, but the market advantage they give only lasts for a week or two and then the competition evens the playing field again. Somebody has to stake the high ground and keep it for more than a few days.

The Secret? Search at the OS Level I believe the functionality to make this quantum leap forward in search has to rest at the operating system level. Search needs to be more fully integrated into our daily online activities. It needs to achieve the transparency that can only happen when search works in the background, totally integrated with programs and the basic functionality of our computer.

This is where MSN Search can deliver the knockout punch to Google. And I believe Google knows this. I’m guessing a fair number of the hundreds of Google PhD’s are wrapping their collective intellect around this blockbuster challenge. Google has to gain a foothold on the desktop to effectively fight off Microsoft’s attack. And this means surrendering privacy. Privacy is something we are protecting more and more diligently. We won’t give it up easily.

But Microsoft has already integrated themselves at the root level on our desktop. They don’t just own the high ground, they own the whole landscape. And when they can deliver a search experience that’s truly better than the competition, they’ll have already won. It won’t take another Super Bowl ad.

Microsoft, you had us at hello.

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