Its always amazing to me the number of people at Microsoft who are working in a come-from-behind situation. To outsiders, its easy to focus on Microsofts big wins: operating systems and desktop applications. But inside Microsoft, its the new initiatives that take center stage, and this is where Microsoft as often as not has its back to the wall.
As I look forward to 2005, one of these battles looks really interesting. Its not the most significant Microsoft effort for next year, but it has the potential to change how almost all of us search for information online. Its the battle between Google (on the offensive) and Microsoft (on the defensive) for the titles of worlds best and most popular search engines.
I separate the titles since one company may not win them both. And while its unlikely that a third company will challenge the two big players for popularity in 2005, there remains a strong prospect that some third, fourth or fifth player will win the “best search engine” title. Probably not in 2005 and perhaps not before being acquired by MS or Google, but its important to keep our eyes open.
Also, notice that I said this would be the most “interesting” story to watch. Google versus Microsoft is a fun story, but barring some dramatic development elsewhere, the most important story in 2005 will be security—the topic of a future column.
But back to the battle at hand: By not taking Google seriously right from the start, Microsoft now finds itself way behind and may be unable to close the gap. Not doing so would allow Google to fully implement some sort of information search and management platform, not as a replacement for a traditional desktop but still in a manner capable of sending Bill and Steve into apoplexy.
Redmond has already lost the first battles of the search technology war, but it is playing a strong come-from-behind game. While the beta of the new Microsoft search engine isnt perfect, Google itself leaves a lot to be desired in consistently producing useful results. Make no mistake: Search is still very much in play.
Googles failings are particularly a problem when looking for content versus commerce. Google really needs to suppress results that are merely pages produced by other search engines, typically of product pricing. Its also frustrating to enter the name of someone Im interested in, such as a recording artist, and get a zillion catalog page results before any useful information about the artist appears.
Microsofts Search Beta
Microsoft, in its search beta, has yet to prove itself. Its a pretty baby to be sure, but ever notice how cuter-than-cute child stars grow up to be silly-looking adults? Ill give Microsoft a year and see how its search engine is doing at this time of year in 2005.
The battle of the search engines may never be decisively won, at least from an objective “which engine always gives the best results” perspective. I expect Google and Microsoft to head in slightly different directions, making each the best choice for a specific type of searching. Or maybe the two companies will develop more specialized engines for different content types and areas of interest.
Googles biggest win has been in capturing the hearts and minds of users and even of the general public, for whom “search” and “Google” have become synonymous. By not overdoing the advertising it presents with search results and by offering a clean user interface, Google has become everybodys friend.
The company has been rewarded by users turning its name into a verb, as in “I Googled tryptophan and found out that eating turkey isnt what causes people to fall asleep after a Thanksgiving meal!”
Yahoo tried becoming a verb with its “Do you Yahoo?” campaign—and failed. I think success requires a name for which people have no strong pre-existing concept of its meaning, and are thus free to create a new meaning of their own.
Sure, google is a mathematics term, but how many people ever used it or even knew its meaning before the search engine appropriated it as its name? Its also fun to say and even a bit silly. Its going to turn out that Googles best-ever search will be the one that resulted in its name—done without a search engine, I suspect.
Microsoft is not as widely despised as its detractors would like to think. When I ask groups of users, their impression of Microsoft is generally favorable, though not wildly so. Microsoft will never beat Google for hearts and minds. Redmond must instead create a better Google than Google in hopes of persuading users to switch.
While Google has fashioned itself as a hugely successful technology company, I consider it to be something else: a modestly successful media company, based on its revenue being from advertising rather than from technology sales.
Google has the benefit of single-mindedness in achieving its goal of becoming the worlds favorite portal to online information. Microsoft has such focus at the business-unit level, but whether the companys top execs are as committed to search engine dominance as Google remains to be proved.
One important thing Google has that Microsoft has lost is the ability to make its employees very rich. This allows Google to attract the kind of super-smart talent Microsoft used to attract. To combat this, Microsoft is trying to corner the market on Chinese programming geniuses in Beijing, but thats a game Google can play as well.
Overall, I rate Microsofts huge size as a neutral factor in the search engine battle, and Googles smaller size as a positive.
How will this play out in 2005?
Google will continue to acquire companies involved in presenting reference data to users. A good example of this is Keyhole, which has developed a neat viewer for satellite images and aerial photography.
Want to see what your neighborhood looks like from above? For $29.95 a year, you can see this and pretty much everywhere else. For most people, this is a parlor game, but Keyhole has dramatically lowered the price and improved access to overhead images. Is this enough to propel Googles success? Only a little, but add enough of these together—as Google has the bankroll to do—and it can really add up.
Its e-mail service gives Google more places to sell ads, but the service needs to better contribute to the overall goal of managing users online information. I can imagine a desktop Google application or Web service, capable of indexing the users desktop and stored files, appearing during 2005. I am doubtful that social networks or blogging will become huge revenue sources for Google or anyone.
I never really expected Google to do a browser, and the companys CEO, Eric Schmidt, has denied the rumor. I do, however, expect Google to create one-stop searching from a user interface that supports more types of searches than Google does today.
This could prove to be a critical error, however. Googles success has been built upon simplicity and functionality, two qualities easily lost when a company sets its sights on “bigger things.”
It will be interesting to see how Googles revenue mix at the end of 2005 compares with how the company earns its money today. Im sure it will remain predominately advertising-driven, but Ill be watching for the contributions that premium services and non-ad-supported businesses make. Google must find significant non-advertising revenue if its to remain a Wall Street darling.
If I had to guess right now, Id expect that a year from now, Google still will be on top, but that Microsoft will be closing in. But the battle between the two will doubtless make searching at the end of 2005 both more interesting and more useful than it is today.
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