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Live's Erik Selberg On Microsoft's Tough Search Challenge

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Live Search Popularity, Oct 2005-Oct 2006

Talk about the echo chamber coming full circle. The stats on Microsoft's search share decline that I posted last week were commented on by Erik Selberg of Microsoft's Live.com search team in his General disarray at The Big 3 post. He provides a fresh, honest assessment of Microsoft's search challenge ahead from someone in the rank-and-file:

Microsoft will continue to lose share until it can make Live.com something people chose versus just the IE default. That will happen when the average person starts to see Live.com as a bit better than Google. Right now, Google wins on brand (people like them a lot) and quality, so it's to be expected that existing Yahoo / Live customers will migrate to Google than vice-versa and new customers will pick Google more than Live or Yahoo.

If that sounds dismal, it gets worse:

Google is making people focus on features, which should tell people that they're worried about how we're catching up, and are going to put more people on their core products to keep and extend their lead. So it's going to be a tough, tough battle for Microsoft to get there

And how long a battle? We've had Microsoft execs say it would take months to overtake Google in quality to years, with the spin that we're still in the early days. Erik's in the realistic years camp:

While our management set the goal of having relevance that beat Google after 2 years (then 3, and I believe 4 now…) it's not realistic to think that it can be done quickly. If you ask Google, Yahoo, or the fine SEOs at WebMasterWorld or other such places, they'll all say that Live Search has increased in quality over the years so that it's much closer to Yahoo and Google. Not yet better, but no longer laughable. And yeah, we've done our own share of copying feature parity, and we're starting to do a few things that cause Google and Yahoo to do the same (ok, noODP is a small feature, but it's a start!).

How about some optimism? Erik sees Google's stability working against it in some ways, making it stagnant (see my Why Search Sucks & You Won't Fix It The Way You Think post for more on that concept). Potentially, this is true. But realistically, I think the fact that Google has changed slowly is reassuring to the searching audience.

Microsoft has changed four or five times in radical ways over the past two years, including an entire brand change. The last service to change so much like this was AltaVista, which I joked could give Madonna a run for her money in the image change department. None of those changes helped AltaVista. For Microsoft, I think it would actually benefit from really locking down the overall look-and-feel for an extended period. The good news is, I suspect that's actually going to be the case. New features seem likely to be added, but yet another redesign doesn't seem in the works.

I actually think Google's weakness is the same as the weakness Erik sees with Yahoo:

Yahoo is just in a rough place. They've got Google dominating, and they've got us coming up from behind. So they're trying to do everything to avoid getting squeezed everywhere… and the result is too many people doing too many things in a mediocre way (the buzz-speak is “not enough critical mass in several areas”). Nothing surprising here either.

On the upside for Google and Yahoo lovers, both companies themselves understand this. The now famous Yahoo "Peanut Butter" memo covers some at Yahoo internally understanding the issue, while in October, it came out that Google was supposedly refocusing on core product and cutting new releases -- and that all the frenetic activity had been hurting core search there.

Fully recognizing the challenge ahead, Erik's still optimistic

Hopefully the chaos that starts out with a new Senior VP turns into increased efficiency sooner versus later. I know I'm working as hard as I can to make this happen sooner versus later, but nevertheless, it's gonna be a stand-up fight against someone who has reach over us. Time to be smart.


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