Tough Love: Search Engine Land Style

December 31, 2008

I steer clear of the search engine optimization mavens. Every once in a while, I see a post from the SEO world that embraces my much smaller, much narrower vision of information access and content processing. You will want to read the 6,000 word write up called “Tough Love for Microsoft Search.” The author is the person who has covered search “a long time–13 years” and often quoted Dan Sullivan, formerly of Search Engine Watch and now Search Engine Land. The article is here. Take off is a bit unusual. Mr. Sullivan he delivered a guest lecture at Microsoft about search in June 2008. He then moves through a number of references to the high profile journalists who cover search. Then he gets down to the meat of the article. Three points jumped out at me, but when you read it, you will probably have more gems tucked in your treasure chest of search wisdom. Let me highlight the three keepers for me and then offer a comment or two.

The first point that stuck me was that Google and Microsoft are different. The top guns at Microsoft don’t appear at conferences. The Redmond giant does not include the word “search” in its catchphrase; Google does. I found this insight quite remarkable.

The second point was that Microsoft sees the world of search as software. Google doesn’t. I had not realized that Microsoft’s history of selling software as shrink wrapped boxes and licenses to computer builders had escaped me.

The third point was that Microsoft’s got some brand issues. I noted this as well.

I think Mr. Sullivan does a good job of summarizing some of the core issues that Microsoft must address if it wants to do more than battle with Ask.com for search share.

In my view, the issues for Microsoft are somewhat similar, but I have been fumbling along for a year or two in the search space with a different set of perceptions; to wit:

  1. Google is a company that marks a turning point in information access. As a result, its actions disrupt. Microsoft wants to compete the way Roman centurions did. Google is fighting like the 18th century American revolutionaries. Microsoft is the British; Google is the colonial army. The British had a tough time adapting. Microsoft is in the same battlefield situation. The reasons run deep because the British had a mindset (what today we might call a business model), and the mindset made perception of the American’s strategy difficult.
  2. Google is hardly a spring chicken. The company has been chugging along, fueled by math club geeks and gals with soldering irons and metaphorical slide rules, for a decade. In that time, Google has faced zero competition. So now it is no surprise that as people realize its market lead, various “problems” can be easily identified. Nope. Same problem as in 1998. Google built for a network services approach to computing. Most of its competitors build for some other reason. Shifting gears is probably impossible for many organizations disrupted by the GOOG. In today’s business climate, the money to challenge Google may be harder to get. And the cost of challenging Google will be very high. The fatuous estimate of $300 million to do Web search that Yahoo offered earlier this year is just plain wrong.
  3. Advertising is one component of the Google business model. It is as much the business model as the technology for Google. In fact, the two are entangled in the theoretical physics sense of the term. The key for Google is that customers get some services for free while someone else pays the bill. The business model is more than advertising. Consider the deals in school districts or for Google Maps. An organization pays something, but the pay off is the cost reduction or the simple delight in something that works. Google appears to be a one trick pony, but it is not and the earning potential of its business model’s different facets will become more visible in 2008. There are parts to Google’s business model. Fixating on Web search and advertising is a symptom of misdiagnosing the Google pain.

So, my take is that Mr. Sullivan identifies points that describe the surface of the problem. My thought is that Microsoft’s issues are deeper, anchored in culture and a business model, not just technology. More importantly to me, Google’s business model will disrupt more than telecommunications and online advertising. Four or five sectors will find themselves caught in the same enigma as Microsoft.

The problem, therefore, is larger than Microsoft. What’s your take?

Stephen Arnold, December 31, 2008

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