Microsoft's Crawl From The Bottom In Search

Microsoft may be lagging in the search market, but give its engineers credit for moving faster to catch up.
Microsoft may be lagging in the search market, but give its engineers credit for moving faster to catch up.

The software company posted a new search engine for academic journals to the Web Tuesday night, and while it's yet another example of Microsoft trailing Google in online software (digital maps and desktop searches also come to mind), Microsoft is showing what looks like a new willingness to take some chances and loosen up its release schedules.First things first. The beta version of Windows Live Academic Search gives users in the United States, Japan, Australia, and parts of Europe the ability to scour the Web for journal articles, academic papers, and notes and slides from scholarly conferences in the fields of computer science, electrical engineering, and physics. Microsoft has done deals with the Association for Computing Machinery, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Reed Elsevier, Wiley & Sons, and others to index their content, but you've got to subscribe to read more than the abstract. Still, it's a useful tool for researchers, students, librarians, and journalists who need to narrow the Web to a specific and often arcane area of interest. The site will compete with Google Scholar, which covers a broader range of subjects.

Microsoft's academic search engine can perform some tricks Google's can't, says Justin Osmer, a senior product manager for search at Microsoft, citing as examples the ability to mouse over a result to see an abstract and the use of authors' names as hotlinks readers can follow to see other publications by the same person. That's admittedly not as big a deal as content and depth, but at least Microsoft is in the game.

The company has also set its engineers free to cook up broader Web search functions for Windows Live, the site that's eventually going to replace today's MSN Search as Microsoft's standard bearer for finding things on the Web. During a phone conversation last week, Gary Flake, a technical fellow at Microsoft, told me the company is experimenting with novel ways to improve searches for advertisers and users, including pairing search terms with demographic information doled out by MSN subscribers (is that "Jaguar" the sports car, the football team, or the perfume?), usability features like a scroll bar to peruse results, and search engine macros for power users. "Not all of them are going to work," Flake says. "Not all of them are going to resonate with users." But the point here is that Microsoft is finally willing to try some things online that aren't sure bets.

That's good for the company, which has some serious catching up to do in the fast-growing search market. During the month of February, Google's share of Internet search queries rose to more than 42%, from 36% a year earlier, according to market researcher ComScore Networks. And Google is taking its gains out of Microsoft's and Yahoo's hides, despite pricey efforts by those companies to improve their search engines. Yahoo's share of Web searches fell to 27.6% in February, from 31% a year ago, while Microsoft's MSN Search fell to a lowly 13.5% share, down from a little more than 16%.

What's more, Google is earning more money from each search executed on its site than its rivals are, according to Chuck Richard, an analyst at Outsell Inc., which researches the market for B2B advertising. Advertisers rate Google's ad programs more effective and pay more for them, he says.

For Microsoft's part, it's readying new software to match advertisers with ad prices. In February, it acquired MotionBridge, a maker of search software for cell phones. Last month, Microsoft launched a beta version of Windows Live Search, which besides improving relevancy over today's MSN engine is supposed to add whiz-bang features like keeping track of a list of personalized queries or tailoring searches by specific categories like news or shipping, according to Lisa Gurry, Microsoft's marketing director at MSN. "We're further along toward matching the industry leader, who's been in the industry for years," she told me late last year.

That would be Google, whose researchers are themselves forging ahead on complex search problems like improving the user experience on cell phones, displaying graphical pages including timelines in addition to lists of results, and tuning its search engine for speech recognition, as I report in this week's issue of InformationWeek.

Microsoft has used that kind of language before--donning the mantle of the underdog when it gets eclipsed in a market. The defense rings hollow. If the company can keep up the pace of innovation, though, it may do better to let its results speak for themselves.