May 26, 2009
Microsoft is searching for an answer to a tough problem.
That problem is Live.com, which many may not even know is Microsoft’s search engine.
While it’s not technically bad, it’s far from being the leading search engine — handling less than 10 percent of all searches in the United States. That means it’s far from the billions in online ad revenue that have turned Google into a internet powerhouse that is now being looked at by federal regulators for having too much control over the world’s information and advertising. And as browsers are on the way to becoming more important than the operating system they ride on, Microsoft needs to find a way to be something more than a perpetual online bronze winner. Or else it could become as irrelevant as MS-DOS.
The answer is a new search engine to replace Live.com, code-named Kumo and widely expected to debut as Bing.com on Thursday at the All Things D conference in San Diego.
Getting people to switch from Google isn’t going to be easy. Microsoft’s own research reveals that people spend as little time thinking about what search engine to use as they do deciding what route to take to work or whether to brush their teeth before sleep.
Microsoft is reportedly planning a $100 million ad campaign to push its new search technology. But the real test will be in its ability to deliver a game-changing experience — something that’s eluded all of the major search engine developers for the better part of a decade.
Google long ago solved the problem of finding the most relevant links for a general query, such as a restaurant’s name. In order to gain traction, Microsoft will need to do more than provide an alternate list of link results. It will need to dig deeper into the structure of web pages and pull out more specific information tailored to the context of searches, and rendered in a more elegant and useful interface.
Given Live.com’s brand never resonated with users, re-branding is a good way to try to draw users from their relationship with their current favorite search box, according to Search Engine Land editor in chief Danny Sullivan.
“Making something compelling to switch over to would be another thing to do,” Sullivan said. “That’s just difficult. There is a lot of room for improvement, but it is not at the crisis point with Google where users feel like they have to switch.”
Still, there may be some hope for Microsoft and others wanting a piece of Google’s business: In an odd conundrum, it turns out that even though many people say they are generally happy with search results, they often really aren’t. For example, Microsoft cites research showing that even though two-thirds of web searchers say they are generally satisfied with the technology they use, fewer than 40 percent think they’ll get a good result for a local query.
That’s why Microsoft evangelist Stefan Weitz thinks there’s room for Microsoft to improve. “The most popular feature in search is the back-click,” Weitz told Wired.com in a briefing.
Call it the “Gmail difference.” People thought online e-mail was just fine and more or less converged on the same specific set of features — until Google came along and gave people gigs of disk space, organized e-mails by conversations and let people send big attachments. Soon Yahoo and Microsoft were forced to follow.
So too with search.
Google appears to have created the staple recipe, but there is a clear hunger for something more. Unfortunately people may not know what that something extra is until they see it — and that’s something not even Google has been able to figure out.
So what do we know about what web searchers want?
Weitz gave Wired.com a look at some of what Microsoft found when it went “back to the data” — namely Live.com search results — in a bid to make a qualitative leap in search performance.
The data shows rampant clicking by many on the back button, while others get desperate enough to look to the second page of results. And when that doesn’t work, the users try again, coming up with slightly different terms. That’s about half of the searches.
Only a quarter of searches return a good result — meaning an answer to a question (think a stock price), a satisfying search engine result or a happy ad click. And, if that’s the case for Live.com — it’s going to be similar for Google and Yahoo, according to Weitz.
That failure is good news, Microsoft argues, since it means there’s room for search engines, like Bing, to improve.
For example, Microsoft is seeing that users turn to general search engines for specific tasks, even when there are already specialized tools for such searches. Users are typing flight booking information — such as airport codes and times — directly into the search boxes, rather than going to Orbitz or Kayak.com or Travelocity. A smarter search engine might take users directly to those tools, rather than just point them to the links where they can find those tools.
And, as it turns out, online search sessions can also be quite long — meaning that there’s not a single question and answer for a search engine to return. Instead, users engage in long research and discovery sessions, and could use some help with organizing those results, Weitz said.
That sounds right.
Think of how you would shop for the best new GPS unit and the cheapest place to buy it online. How many searches would it take? Or how about finding the best local dry cleaner for a fur coat? Or researching one’s symptoms and possible remedies.
Some way to add order to those searches would be very useful.
While all of these sound like good insights, Microsoft’s changes will need to be perceived by consumers as something major — something big enough to make them think to switch. Incremental improvements in suggestions and layout have not done much to help Ask.com or Yahoo.com, even for the six months it takes Google to mimic those changes.
Which is just to say, a better Bing had better boom.