Google and Microsoft Going to War: Is the User the Casualty?

Bill Gates said it, so it has to be true. Microsoft and Google are going to war.

When you read the NY Times article, Saul Hansell and Steve Lohr mention the difference in business models, required server farms, browser default settings and a lot of other tactical considerations. There’s one thing missing: the User Experience.

If Microsoft wants to win the search engine wars, they have to come out with a search engine that people want to use. In the usability tests we’ve conducted with MSN Search, it has failed miserably when going head to head with Google, EVEN WITH MSN USERS! Give a better user experience, and you’ll win. Screw it up, and even locking IE on MSN Search won’t help you.

There’s a fundamental issue that everyone seems to be missing here. The user is in control. We keep seeing stories of how big companies are trying to remove or at least subvert customer control by reducing choices or applying technology.

The Internet creates a fluid market. It can shift alliances almost instantly. It can follow the most desired path in the blink of an eye, and word of new paths can spread virally in an incredibly short time period. Look what happened with illegal downloading of music. The music industry kept trying to plug technological holes and new ones kept appearing. It’s like using duct tape to keep a crumbling dam together. Accept the fact that it’s gone and get your butt to higher ground! Throw around legal threats and awareness ads about piracy all you want. Ultimately the only way the music industry will win is to accept the fact that the days of obscene profits and centralized power are gone and embrace the digital distribution paradigm. Use its efficiencies to give us the music we want at a price that we want to pay. We’re inching towards that, but we’re not there yet.

I know that Microsoft is starting to pay a lot of attention to the search experience, but they should have done more out of the gate. The first versions of MSN search have suffered from fundamental design flaws, lack of relevancy in sponsored search results and some other glaring mistakes. I expected more from the Redmond gang.

Speaking of paying attention to the user experience, I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Ferguson from Ask’s usability team at SES Toronto. For those of you that have heard me speak before you know I’ve taken some pretty big swipes at Ask Jeeves in the past, mainly for the blatent bloating of sponsored ads at the top of the organic results. Like I mentioned to Michael, it’s like somebody was listening at Ask. The new version seems to have taken into account a lot of the things we’ve been saying for awhile, including the practice of Semantic Mapping (Ask’s “Narrow” and “Broaden Your Search” options) and use of the anemic right rail real estate to add some true functionality. Ask is paying attention to the user experience, and I’m guessing it’s going to pay off for them in increased market share. They don’t have it all right yet, but at least they’re listening to the right people: the users.

By the way, this blast isn’t all for MSN. I’ve reserved a little bile for Google. In their rush to create multiple fronts on which to attack Microsoft, they may be overlooking where the battle will ultimately be won. In Danny Sullivan’s own rant, 25 Things I Hate about Google, the underlying theme was, get search right first, then worry about conquering the world. Google is a pretty good search experience, but we’re still talking version 1.0 of search. There’s a lot of work to be done, and so far, I haven’t seen world beater innovation coming out of Google labs.

To me, Google Search is a little like the reliable piece of production equipment that’s been doing a good job for a long time, but it’s long overdue for an overhaul. The problem is, you can’t shut it down because you need to keep production up. I’ve said for some time that Google is a victim of its own success, a common malady for many hot start ups. Before you’re on the radar you can be bold and come out with a new product that blows everybody’s socks off. It becomes wildly successful and generates your main revenue stream. You become a public company. Suddenly, that revenue stream becomes a sacred cow. You can’t follow up on the first act, because the first act guarantees your survival as a company.

Google has a dilemma. It can’t survive in the long term unless it comes out with the next big innovation in search in a very bold way. It has to knock our socks off again. But it can’t survive in the short term, especially with the eyes of every financial analyst in the world on them, if it jeopardizes its current revenue channel by messing around with it. An unenviable position to be in, even if Sergey and Larry have enough money to buy everyone in the world a Segway.

This puts Microsoft and Ask in an interesting position. They aren’t solely dependant on their search revenues. They have relatively deep pockets. And they can afford to be bold.

So be bold, but base innovation on an incredibly deep understanding of what we want in a search experience.

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