Microsoft Again Says It Will Beat Google In Six Months, Then Recants

Last week, the president of Microsoft Europe, Middle East and Africa Neil Holloway put down a new timetable for beating Google on the relevancy front -- six months. Sound familiar? "Gates Dings Google, Yet Fails To Impress On Search Himself" from me in January highlights similar promises we've heard from higher in the Microsoft executive food chain, including a specific six month promise that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made last June. Since that timeframe came and past, why on earth is Microsoft setting themselves up like this again? For the record, Microsoft claims Holloway was misinterpreted. I'm not buying it.

Here's one of the original articles citing him, from Reuters:

"What we're saying is that in six months' time we'll be more relevant in the U.S. market place than Google," said Neil Holloway, Microsoft president for Europe, Middle East and Africa.

"The quality of our search and the relevance of our search from a solution perspective to the consumer will be more relevant," he told the Reuters Global Technology, Media and Telecoms Summit.

Holloway then spins in comments on John Battelle's blogs that he was misquoted/misinterpreted/misunderstood:

Unfortunately, the comments attributed to me do not give an accurate reflection on a long and detailed discussion and I would like to set the record straight. I did not say that we would be 'twice as good as Google'. What I did say is that we are committed to investing in R&D aimed at providing a search service, initially in the US in six months, that performs better than the current industry wide standard of one in two urls being connected to the subject of the original query. I also said that our aim is to perform as good, or better, in that respect than Google. This is a long term goal. I did not put a date to it as this is work in progress.

OK, the Reuters article didn't have him saying that Microsoft would be "twice as good" as Google. It has him specifically saying that Microsoft would be more relevant to some unnamed degree than Google within six months.

So what about that six month claim? I have no doubt he said it and meant it exactly as it sounds in the Reuters article. That's because we've heard it before. As I covered in the aforementioned "Gates Dings Google, Yet Fails To Impress On Search Himself" article, Ballmer previously said:

In the next six months, we'll catch Google in terms of relevancy.

After saying that (over six months ago), no one quickly stepped up to correct Ballmer's comment has being misunderstood. Heck, a few months later, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates just added to expectations in saying:

In a very short period of time, we will actually have more than matched the kind of relevance that Google can deliver.

What's happening is that Microsoft has an outdated PR hymn book. Ballmer and Gates have been singing from it already, and Holloway simply was in the unfortunate position of being told to sing along without also being informed that the material is outdated and off-key.

Need some further proof? Holloway was also quoted in the Reuters article as saying this:

"Generally these days what you get back is URLs, and based upon research 50 percent of the time you do a search you don't get the URL you're looking for," he said.

Yep, this would be the same fact we were told when Microsoft announced plans to develop its own search technology back in July 2003. As I quoted Microsoft back then:

"As we've taken close look at search, we've asked, how can we improve the experience? Across the board, about 50 to 70 percent of queries go unanswered. That indicates to us that there's a lot of growth yet to come in the search category," said Gurry, who explained that the high failure rate is based on Microsoft's own internal research. "We've felt we should really develop our own [crawler-based] search engine to try and solve this problem."

That was over two years ago, and this fact has continued to be used as a speaking/selling point.

Hey, I don't disagree that search has a long way to develop. I'm sure Microsoft will continue to grow and create a great search engine. But trotting out the same pitch -- and now trying to rollback that pitch when it's not believed -- isn't the way to win public support. Skip the promises; focus on the deliverables.

As for the MSN Search team itself, it's also jumped into the fray with its own statement, and one that's more reasonable:

We believe that search is in its infancy. We believe there is massive opportunity to improve every aspect of the search experience including: basic web relevancy, new types of media, refining and interacting with your results, leveraging search server infrastructure to provide new services that were never before imagined, and so much more. We are committed to building the world?s best search engine which helps you get your answers as quickly as possible ? and we are excited to spend many years continuing to innovate on our customer?s behalf...

...That said, we won?t try to predict the progress of our competitors and so we won't forecast when we might take the lead, but this is a long term game and we are committed to helping drive the next wave of innovation in search for our customers.

Now let's see if the hymn book changes for the Microsoft execs out there.