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Google Worried About Microsoft's Browser Advantage? What Advantage?

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I was off yesterday (it was a holiday in England), so I merrily missed the fireworks over Google's objections to Microsoft's plans for search in Internet Explorer 7. Nevertheless, a few calls from reporters penetrated my holiday bubble, and I added a brief note with my thoughts below Barry's post about the news. But today, I wanted to more formally revisit the issue. In short, I find Google's concerns pretty overblown, somewhat hypocritical and most important, worry over something that's not likely going to hurt them.

I am nauseatingly exhausted by idea that Microsoft will conjure up some magical method of yanking people into its MSN Windows Live Whatever You Want To Call It search service via the Windows operating system or the Internet Explorer browser. Microsoft has failed for years to be successful in this, which is why it's amazing anyone would still believe it. But let's revisit the tired facts.

Search has been part of Internet Explorer since I think IE2 or IE3. Back in 1996, when MSN was the "Microsoft Network," there was a "Search The Internet" button that took you to this page (no longer active), which then let you chose from various search providers who were listed in order of how much they paid, if I recall correctly.

By 1998, we got Internet Explorer 4, which introduced the "Search Pane." Push the search button, and you got a new window that opened, allowing you to search with one of five search engines. The browser randomly selected one as your choice. MSN Search, launched that year, was one of the choices. No choice was allowed to be a default.

That was confusing, so much so that Microsoft abandoned random rotation with IE5. As I wrote in my Internet Explorer 5 Makes Search Easier article in 1999:

This is in sharp contrast to how the Search Pane worked in Internet Explorer 4, where the search engine selection constantly changed. Microsoft abandoned this with IE5 so that users wouldn't get confused by a continually rotating search choice.

"Before, it was like Russian roulette. What am I going to get today?" said Bill Bliss, general manager of MSN Search.

It's a good move. I think many users of both Explorer and Netscape Communicator have no idea why the search partner changes when they click on the respective search buttons -- indeed, some don't even realize the partner is changing. The IE5 change allows Microsoft to give its partners a shot at its users without confusing those users in the process.

By 2001, Microsoft had abandoned rotating who got to be the default choice. By that year, if you used IE5, Microsoft was your default provider. It continued that way into IE6, as I covered in my 2002 article, Searching & Navigating Via Internet Explorer.

Despite this -- DESPITE THIS -- Google rose higher and higher as a preferred search choice. In fact, I used to closely track who were the browser partners for both Microsoft and Netscape (old charts are here). But by 2002, it was clear that the browser was no longer a leading way that search engines generated traffic, so I stopped regular monitoring. What was driving traffic instead? Word-of-mouth.

By 2003, Microsoft declared war against Google in particular and other search engines in general. Many analysts fell over themselves on how Microsoft would triumph by putting search into Longhorn, then the code-name for the new Vista operating system, and how being in the browser would give them such an advantage.

Phooey. I never bought it and pretty much was amazed anyone could say this. Search in the operating system? You mean like when I click on Start, then click on Search? Hey, that's search already in the Microsoft OS, and it's been there for ages.

As for the browser, my 2003 article -- Microsoft's MSN Search To Build Crawler-Based Search Engine -- summarized Microsoft's "built in" search advantage but concluded it wasn't a factor that guaranteed a win:

Aside from the Boycott Microsoft Search page, others like News.com and an anonymous MSN Search candidate cited by Scripting News have suggested that Microsoft will use its control of the Windows operating system to deliver an audience to its search engine in a way that Google and other competitors cannot do.

This isn't some future possibility. This is already a fact and has been for ages. The majority of web surfers use Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, which has direct integration into MSN Search in a variety of ways. This "built-in search advantage" is how MSN currently gets most of its audience.

"The bulk of our traffic is driven to us from our IE integration and then from the MSN home page," said Gurry.

Gurry said that Microsoft would like to raise the profile of this search integration, because some Internet Explorer users aren't aware it is there. In other words, some might push the Internet Explorer search button, get results back from MSN Search yet never realize that it was the Microsoft search engine that helped them. Others may not realize that there's any integration at all, such as the ability to query MSN Search directly from the browser address bar.

"People don't necessarily understand the tie-in," Gurry said.

Integration changes might add to Microsoft's traffic. However, there's every reason to expect that many people will also continue to choose Google, Yahoo or other search engines in droves, just as they have despite years of Microsoft already having a built-in advantage.

Search is not like software. You don't install it on your desktop, nor does switching search engines cause any serious need to "relearn" commands or reformat data. The only way Microsoft can lock people into its search engine is to literally prevent them from navigating to other search engines, a fairly dramatic move that public opinion would never allow.

Overall, Microsoft's built-in advantage has helped it be one of the remaining major players in the search sweepstakes. It's the ticket that has allowed it to compete, but it's a ticket that's also been punched. To win, to really push aside Google and Yahoo, Microsoft will need more than this.

Ah -- but it's different this time, right? I mean, there's a search box right in the "chrome" of the browser, visible for anyone to use. Everyone will naturally start using them.

Phooey. Yep, I know plenty of Firefox people who use the Firefox search box. But then again, Firefox remains very much a minority browser on the web used by more tech savvy surfers. My mom? If she buys a new computer with IE7, she's not going to use that search box. What's she going to do? She's going to type in Google into the address bar to search. That's what people do, in my experience. They go directly to the search engines they know.

What happens when she shows up at Google? It's going to suggest she downloads the Google Toolbar, which in turn will suggest she makes Google her default search engine, just like you can see Google doing here (or what Yahoo does to woe Google Firefox users here). If she does it, Google wins. If she doesn't, Google still wins, because she's still not going to make use of that search box.

Maybe Mom's habits will change over time. Maybe. But so far, millions haven't been sucked in by MSN's existing search integration, primarily in my view because anyone who tried it encountered bad search and learned to seek out a provider directly.

But forget my mom and my anecdotal, non-statistically backed observations. The New York Times article tells us that Google finds search boxes, "when available," are the starting point for 30 to 50 percent of a searcher's searches.

When available? They aren't available in IE6, not unless you push the search button. So we're talking about the search box in Firefox -- and its savvier user base -- or search boxes added by toolbars.

Oh, toolbars? Yeah, they drive traffic. But not the majority of traffic. In November, toolbars drove only 12 percent of overall search traffic in the US, comScore reported. It's a big chunk, but far from the biggest. And by the way -- Google got nearly half of that toolbar traffic last March, comScore also reported. Yahoo got nearly all the other half and Microsoft? Not even listed.

So overall, I remain dubious that the browser integration is going to push Microsoft over the edge with Google. Yep, users should have an easy way to change defaults. But no, I can't say I think that randomly selecting a search partner makes the most sense. Nor can I work up the feeling that it is odd for Microsoft to choose its own search engine as the default in its own browser. I actually pretty much applaud them for respecting whatever defaults are already in place on your own computer. If Google's your default now (and it probably is, if you use the Google Toolbar), you keep using Google at your provider in IE7.

Meanwhile, skip past the business aspects. What about the consumer issue of choice? The New York Times writes of Google's preferred solution:

The best way to handle the search box, Google asserts, would be to give users a choice when they first start up Internet Explorer 7. It says that could be done by asking the user to either type in the name of their favorite search engine or choose from a handful of the most popular services, using a simple drop-down menu next to the search box. The Firefox and Opera browsers come with Google set as the default, but Ms. Mayer said Google would support unfettered choice on those as well.

Sure, I can get behind the "give people a choice from the beginning" idea. But if Google wants Microsoft to do that, then Google should make it happen right now in Firefox, which pretty much is Google's surrogate browser. If this is the best way for a browser to behave, then Google should be putting its weight on Firefox to make it happen. And Google should also ensure it does the same with Dell, where it has a partnership that I believe makes it the default search engine on new Dell computers.

It would be much easier to back Google's suggestions for IE7 if it was already doing this with its own partnerships. That's especially so given this latest article comes two months after the Wall Street Journal gave big play to Google's concerns with IE7. Back in February, the Journal wrote:

In December, for these and other reasons, Google refused to sign an agreement with Microsoft relating to the new browser's search capabilities. Microsoft left Google off the list of alternative search services. A month later, Microsoft notified Google it would be included on the list with or without a signed agreement, according to people familiar with the matter. Microsoft says after a review of its legal position, it realized it could include Google without a formal pact.

So Google's been concerned about choice for months. Nevertheless, it has failed to make any changes in Firefox, as I wrote after reviewing the Wall Street Journal article:

It's an odd argument, given that Google has not demanded that Firefox make consumers do similar choices in that browser. A partnership deal makes Google the default in Firefox, except for Asian-language versions where Yahoo cut its own deals.

In the end, I find it almost amazing that Google feels it needs to drop hints to the US Justice Department and the EU that it perhaps needs protection. In the search space, it's Google that remains the major player that many people feel may need to have a counter to. A list of the most popular search engines? Since those are largely US-dominated companies, I suspect the EU would want to change the playing field not to stop Microsoft but to hinder both Google and Microsoft. Is that a box Google really wants to open?

Finally, some second-day stories, that I've reviewed after writing the article above:

  • Google supports choice...except on FireFox and Opera from Microsoft's Don Dodge raising the same issue I covered above, that Google has hardly demonstrated a support of choice in the way it demands of Microsoft.
  • Google's Double Standard from Yahoo's Jeremy Zawodny, again looking at Google's failure to support choice.
  • Google cries foul, but for what? from Ed Bott provides nice screenshots on how changing providers in IE7 is about the same as changing in Firefox with one exception - MSN Search is NOT an option in Firefox while Google IS an option in IE7. How about Google putting some pressure on Firefox to let Microsoft in the door. It is one of the web's major search engines. It ought to be on that list.
  • Google and choice from Nick Carr has the interesting suggestion that if Google's for choice, shouldn't the Google home page -- which gets far more users than any browser toolbar -- let users make a search choice? The idea gave me a chuckle, but I wouldn't agree. If you go to Google, you wanted Google. I don't buy into the idea you went there because you thought Google was just a synonym for search.
  • Microsoft and Google Set to Wage Arms Race from the New York Times follows on yesterday's article to look at the idea that in the war between Google and Microsoft (and Yahoo, but they don't get a mention), Google's hardly a scrappy underdog. In fact, it has people worried about it perhaps being a monopoly or too powerful. That's something that's been going on since 2002, as my Google: Can The Marcia Brady Of Search Stay Sweet? article from back then covers in more depth.

Want to comment or discuss? Visit our Search Engine Watch Forums thread, Google Objects To Microsoft's IE7 Search Default Plans.


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