Microsoft’s Talk vs. Microsoft’s Talk

First published April 9, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Not so many columns ago, I urged Microsoft to do something amazing in search. Last week, they did. But it wasn’t in a good way. I was on the road last week, and I saw three different things land in my inbox about Microsoft and its search efforts. With each email, my frustration mounted. Finally, Friday as I was sitting in Seattle airport, I couldn’t contain myself anymore. I sent an email to the most senior person I knew at Microsoft Search. The gist of the email was “don’t do it,” Yesterday, I got an email back thanking me for my “honest” feedback. Yet somehow, I don’t think it will make a difference.

Here were the articles I saw:

One – Google can’t innovate but Microsoft can, according to Bloomberg.com:

“Being the underdog in the Internet- search market has one advantage for Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer: He says his company can experiment, while rival Google Inc. plays it safe. ‘Google does have to be all things to all people,’ Ballmer said… Our search does not need to be all things to all people.'”

I believe Ballmer is right here, in theory. What’s happening in reality is something very different. But let’s hold that thought for a moment.

Two – Search isn’t solved, according to Arstechnica.com:

“We’re not at where we’d like to be,” Weitz [Stefan Weitz, Microsoft Web Search Team] began, and then dove in to explain that people are generally happy with how their search engine is working, until the data shows that they are not.”

Nobody is arguing that the 10 blue links is the pinnacle of search, especially Google. So it’s hard to disagree here. We judge relative to what we know, but we’re on the brink of blowing that away.

So far, Microsoft is saying all the right things.

Three – Microsoft to spend $100 Million in advertising new search engine, according to Adage.com
“Industry executives expect JWT, part of WPP, to unveil an estimated $80 million to $100 million push for the new search engine in June, with online, TV, print and radio executions.”

What? This was the email that drove me over the edge. $100 million? On Kumo..or Kiev or whatever they call this? This is wrong on so many levels, I hardly know where to start.

I’m not going to pass judgment on a search interface I haven’t got my hands on. I don’t think it’s fair to make a call on a few leaked screenshots.   But I will say that I’ve seen nothing revolutionary about this. And that’s the point. As I’ve said over and over and over, Google is a habit. You don’t break a habit with $100 million in advertising. You don’t break it with promises of search usage kickbacks. And you certainly don’t break it with a marginal and incremental change in the search experience. Microsoft is right to introduce categorized search. They’re right to explore changing the search interface. No arguments there. But this is not the time to draw $100 million in attention to it. Best case scenario: no improvement to market share. Worst case, the biggest drop yet, if the usability aspects haven’t been fully thought out.

If you accept the message in the first two emails, Microsoft needs to be a search start-up: bold, nimble, visionary, passionate and rebellious. And there’s no way in hell that will happen on the Redmond campus.  Bold, nimble, visionary, passionate rebels are nowhere to be seen.

The First Step is Admitting the Problem

So accept what you are, and more importantly, accept what you’re not. Tweak your search product to improve experience, catch up and try to stem the market share bleeding. There’s nothing wrong with that. And stop with the rebranding. Every time you do that, you’re breaking the established habits of your own users and giving them the chance to go elsewhere.  This strategy will blow up in your face.

At the same time, stop worrying about winning the 10 blue link search war and start planning for the next battle. That’s when the Google habit will be broken and where you have a chance to change the game. Here are the things Microsoft needs to start thinking about:

–       Stop worrying about relevance and start worrying about usefulness.

–       Understand that search patterns represent a complex system and look at ways to discover emergent behavior from that system. Use your findings to improve everyone’s search experience (this is an element in Stephen Wolfram’s Alpha project)

–       Use every signal at your disposal to interpret user intent in an implicit way. Embrace personalization, behavioral patterns, the social graph, task context and anything else that helps uncover what’s in a person’s mind.

–       Reinvent the interface. Embrace how humans follow information scent. Use more intuitive interface tools to allow us to choose, filter and drill into promising paths. And make it workable in much less real estate.

–       Make a better search experience personal and portable, seamlessly transferring from the desktop to the mobile device.

–       Hold Google’s feet to the fire. Follow your own advice and innovate faster and better than they do.  Because you’re right, it’s difficult for them to innovate and risk alienating their user base. But here’s the flipside to that. It’s easier for them to take that risk when there’s no strong alternative to go to.

Before You Say No, Just Listen…

If Microsoft really wants to spend $100 million on search, here’s my suggested plan. Take $20 million and fund 10 start-ups for $2 million each. Give them a one-year mandate to reinvent search. Take the remaining $80 million and use it to develop a TV reality show. Call it “Google Killer.”  Get Steve Ballmer to host. He can throw chairs, do the Monkey Dance and lead the audience in a chant of “Developers, Developers, Developers.”  I guarantee you’ll get a better return on your investment.

And if someone at Microsoft is listening, I’m free to discuss the development deal for the show. Hell, I’ll even be one of the contestants.  Call me anytime.

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