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Microsoft Launches Search Beta: Platform Ho!

By - November 10, 2004

msftnewsearch1Well, the rumours were true, the launch is real, and the Microsoft search engine is officially here, if in beta, and still in the “Sandbox” for now. I’m told that MSFT intends to roll it into MSN after garnering feedback for the next few months, probably sometime in the first half of 2005.

Microsoft’s angle on the engine is “providing more useful answers.” In the presentation I was given, MSFT showed some new research which claimed that the time between a searcher’s query and a full answer averages 11 minutes. It’s within this window that MSFT hopes to improve search – getting an answer, quicker.

I haven’t had time to play with it to the extent I can say that it’s better or worse than its competitors, but clearly, this is a significant engine. (I’ve included links to the press site, which features the new engine, at this writing, the beta site was still the old product). Product manager Justin Osmer, who gave me a tour, says he’s confident the engine “will get us in the game.” The index currently boasts 5 billion pages indexed, and includes some innovative features, including a location-based search called “Search Near Me” and a Yahoo-like approach to well-worn keyphrases like musician’s names and the like. The engine also includes an Ask-like question answering capability. Before Google upped thier index to 8 billion, clearly in response to this news, Microsoft claimed, in early press releases, to have the largest index. Clearly it’s back to the indexing board for them on that count, not, as Linden and many others have pointed out, that it really matters in the big scheme of things.

Search Near Me works either by interpreting your IP address to geolocation, which does not always work, or allowing you to set your preferences to include your actual location. Image and News search is also integrated.

searchblderThe interface is clean and uncluttered, and includes a “Search Builder” tool that allows you to customize your query for better results. I’ll have more on this in coming days, but for now, suffice to say the game is on, and Microsoft is very much on the field.

In conjunction with the launch, Microsoft has also debuted it’s own Microsoft Search Blog (I’m honored, really…) along the lines of Google and Yahoo’s entries. It’s first entry is now up. I’m pleased to say, the comments are open.

But perhaps the most important news I gleaned from talking to Osmer was this: Microsoft has every intention of opening up its search APIs and allowing third party developers to leverage their search platform for new and innovative applications. This is where the future lies, in my mind, and I find that declaration a refreshing indication of where Microsoft is heading. “Our intentions down the road are not only to continue to grow the engine,” Osmer said, “but to also set the groundwork for a third party ecosystem that would allow others to use our technology. We as a company realize that there is a significant difference between shrink wrapped software (in other words, MSFT’s bread and butter) and the online world.”

Amen. Let the games commence!

Draft release in extended entry.

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8 Billion

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goog 8 billYep, that’s what the Google home page now says it indexes…it also notes that this is a “nearly doubling”. Now I am sure this has nothing to do with the launch of MSFT’s search, more on that at 9 pm PST….Google’s blog has the details.

Loads O News

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Besides the MSFT news, more is coming and much more has past that I missed last week or that merits a quick post, but I’m buried so here’s a roundup:

dogpile2First off, Dogpile has launched a new feature it calls “IntelliFind” which “utilizes sophisticated query intelligence to assess the likely intent behind every entered query, enabling Dogpile to return more relevant results from a wider array of content sources.” Dogpile is a metasearch engine, using results from Google, Yahoo, Ask, About, LookSmart, and many others. I’m not a huge fan of how they list paid results, but the service keeps innovating, worth checking out.

10x10Last week 10×10 got a lot of buzz, this service lists the top 100 images and phrases that are driving news in any given hour. Cool to look at.

crystalsemYesterday Crystal Semantics announced “Textonomy Advance,” which “provides rapid contextual analysis of textual information online to identify the proper theme of each site and deliver the most effective advertisements. ” Sounds a little bit like Kaltix (though not about personalization).

dulanceAnd also yesterday Dulance, whose CEO has been posting in the shopping post below, announced an RSS comparison shopping application.

Can We Please Bury the Netscape Metaphor?

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netscapeThanks to the pending launch of MSFT’s search technology, today the press is full of easy comparisons – “Is Google the Next Netscape?” is a typical headline. The mainstream press has just woken up to the “Microsoft is going to crush its competition” meme, and it’s tiring to see this easy thinking splayed all over the mediasphere.

But let’s get one thing straight, for once and for all: Google ain’t no Netscape. As many have pointed out, it’s looking more and more like the next Microsoft, in terms of business model, talent, and riches.

If Bill Gates had a magic shaving mirror, one that showed him 20 years younger and in fighting shape, he’d probably peer into it and see the image of Larry Page or Sergey Brin. Microsoft is indeed a fearsome competitor, with extraordinary resources (and I don’t mean the $50 billion in cash, I mean the ability to leverage Windows). But it’s a middle aged company that moves far more slowly than it did ten years ago, when it first recognized the Web threat. And even if it wants to move, which I am sure it does, it’s uncertain as to which way to go: it’s got a massive legacy to protect, and an uncertain path forward.

Back in 1995, MSFT faced a small company with barely any revenues and a product that, while innovative, was hardly rocket science to recreate. The internet was still a new concept and users had almost no brand loyalty, and a pretty ingrained sense that the only major player out there, besides AOL, was inevitably going to be Microsoft.

Now let’s take a look at today. Microsoft faces an enormous chasm crossing moment: Windows is becoming simply another layer in the Internet application stack, eroding its lock in leverage over time. (I’ve taken to saying, probably far too casually, that Windows is to the Internet as DOS was to Windows). And Google? They’ve got hundreds of thousands of servers around the world running a proprietary, Linux-based operating system that serves up billions of queries a month, and is now being adapted to serve mail, blogs, photos, satellite images, and Lord knows what else. Google has a very distinct *architecture* advantage, not just a brand and user loyalty advantage (though it has that as well).

I’m not saying that MSFT (or AOL, or Yahoo) can’t prosper in this space, or even “win” in the long term. But crush Google a la Netscape? No friggin’ way. The only thing that can kill Google is Google itself, either through growing too fast, managing too poorly, or failing its customers in some catastrophic way.

Google Looks to Its Resellers

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professional_welcome_signupWhat’s a sign of a maturing business? One that takes care of its “developers.” In the case of Google (for now, anyway), that means the agencies and search engine marketing companies that manage AdWords accounts on behalf of multiple clients. (Soon, one might presume, Google will have a robust developer network of the more traditional kind, a la Microsoft or Apple, but I’m getting ahead of the story).

Today Google announced “Google Advertising Professionals,” a program designed to cater to SEMs and agencies. Google has long lagged Overture in the Manicuring the Hand That Feeds You category, I am sure this program will be a welcome addition in the search marketing space. Details in release, in extended entry.

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MSFT Search to Debut This Week

By - November 09, 2004

gatesmsftI was wondering why the MSFT folks were so eager to get me in front of a PC this week (I will see a preview Weds and report back asap): MSFT will debut its search to the public this Thursday, well ahead of sked. Hmm, wonder if there was a fire under that team’s ass, stoked by Bill and Steve?

From the WSJ piece (the Journal is open this week, thankfully):

The Redmond, Wash. software maker on Thursday will open to the public its service for searching the Internet after eighteen months of development. The company is trying to tap into the lucrative business now dominated by Google of combining Internet search and advertising.

A Microsoft spokeswoman reached today declined to comment on the service. Microsoft, which has been testing the service on a limited basis since June, has said it will start the public version of the service by year-end. The company is also working on technology for searching for data on personal computers that will likely debut sometime later this year.

And of course Markoff has the details:

Microsoft will stress the size and completeness of its service, according to several people with knowledge of the announcement.

Currently Google, the largest search engine, indexes about 4 billion Web pages, 880 million images and 845 million Usenet messages. The service is used by almost 82 million people each month, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

Microsoft has been pursuing a Web portal strategy with its MSN service with little success. And, like Yahoo, Microsoft has been attempting to muscle in on Google’s strong revenue growth.

Google more than doubled its revenue and profit in its first quarter after its initial public offering, underscoring how rapidly the market for online advertising has been swelling.

“I think Microsoft is a couple of years from doing anything serious, but it’s a reminder that the big bad evil beast is out there,” said John Tinker, an analyst who covers Google for ThinkEquity Partners, a small investment bank in San Francisco.

The Transparent (Shopping) Society

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eyepyramidAs long as I’m on the topic of societal impacts of search, I wanted to sketch out a scenario for you all, in a similar vein to the one I did recently on the integration of search and television.

This scenario involves several elements already in place – search technologies, mobile phones, and the Universal Product Code system – and some more fanciful, but nevertheless feasible technological and business model innovations.

So let’s set this one in motion and see what happens. Imagine it’s the near future, and you’re in your local grocery store on a mission to pick up dinner for a Saturday night dinner party. Because you’re a Searchblog reader with oodles of disposable income to burn, it’s a Whole Foods store, the aisles dripping organic righteousness and whole grain goodness. You know that dinner for 8 is going to run you at least $200, not counting the wine, but that’s OK, compared to the tab at the local bistro, you’ll be coming out ahead. But you do want to make sure you’re not spending money you don’t have to, especially on the wine.

Now, Whole Foods has quite a wine selection, but the store ain’t known for its discount prices on anything, and when it comes to wine, you’ve always had a sneaking suspicion they’re really sticking it to you. But it’s a convenience buy, you’ve always thought, you’re willing to put up with it for the most part.

wineAs you slip your Naiman Ranch tri-tip into your basket and thank the butcher, you head to the wine aisle. What might go with that grilled tri tip? A nice cabernet, no doubt. Whole Foods’ wine aisle, a testament to hierarchy and peer pressure, places the most expensive bottles on the top, and the cheap juice on the bottom. No self-respecting Whole Foods shopper wants to be seen bending down to check out a bottle of wine. Then again, those bottles staring out at you from eye level are exactly the kind that you suspect Whole Foods marks up with the glee of a five star sommelier.

What to do? Not to worry, you’ve got Google Mobile Shop installed on your phone. You whip out your Treo 950, the one with the infrared UPC reader installed, and you wand it over that bottle of 2001 Clos Du Val now lovingly cradled in your arms. In less than a second a set of options is presented on the phone’s screen. It reads:

treo2001 Clos Du Val Merlot, Lot 21
Stags Leap District, Napa Valley

Average Retail Price: $38 (click here for more)
Price at your store: $52 (more on this)
Click here for a list of prices at nearby stores
Click here for stores selling similar items
Click here for reviews of 2001 Clos Du Val Merlot
Click here for more on this vendor (Ecological Impact, Vendor Labor Policies…etc.)

You’re pretty sure that Clos Du Val isn’t employing child laborers, and anyway you’re really only interested in price comparisons, and the first screen has confirmed your initial suspicion: Whole Foods is ripping you off.

You click on the “list of prices at nearby stores” and see that the liquor store up the street is selling the same bottle for $39. You click on that store’s link, and then choose the “reserve this item for same day pick up” option. With a satisfied smirk, you replace the bottle on its perch on the top shelf, and head over to compare prices and recipe tips for the $6 boxes of imported pasta. As you leave, the fellow who runs the store’s wine department eyes you warily, then picks up the phone to talk to his manager. “Herb?” he asks. “Did you get my message about banning cel phones in the store?”

Is this scenario possible? For it to happen, a few non-trivial things need to occur. First, the entire UPC system, which I must admit I do not fully grok, must be made open and available as a web service. Second, merchants must be compelled to make their inventory open and available to web services. Third, mobile device makers must install readers in their phones, essentially turning phones into magic gateways between the physical world and the virtual world of web-based information. And fourth, providers like Google must create applications that tie it all together.

I’ll leave the speculation as to whether steps 1 and 2 are possible to those who know better (Ross? VanGorilla?), but I am pretty sure #3 is already happening (right Rael or Russell?). And #4 is a no brainer – it’s square in Google and Yahoo’s mission.

The implications of search breaking out of the PC box and making real time information available at the point of purchase has been discussed in plenty of places, I am sure, and probably with far more prowess than this simple scenario. It has also been the failed business model of several Web 1.0 companies. But somehow, with recent developments in local and mobile search, it seems much, much closer to happening now.

What might be the effects of such a system coming to fruition? For one, markets would have to compete far more on service, convenience, ambiance, and other non-price related factors. And vendors of products that have been made in third world sweatshops, or with factories that overpollute, or that support causes some consumers do not wish to support, would be called out in a far more transparent fashion. Refusal to participate in such a system would mean that vendors or merchants have something to hide, and as such, the system could be a major force for good in the global economy – forcing transparency and accountability into a system that has habitually hidden the process of how products are made, transported, marketed, and sold from the consumer.

I for one very much hope such a system is just around the corner. What do you think?

You Are What You Index

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ratherYesterday evening I spent some time chatting with a major news program that is doing a piece on Google. During the conversation, the correspondent asked how engines like Google are changing our own sense of self as we relate to the rest of the world. I went off on my (now rather tired) example of a hypothetical Deadbeat Dad who failed to make child support payments, was called out in court and in the local papers. He eventually mended his ways, paid up, and decided that because his reputation was sullied in the community where he lived, he’d move to another state and start over fresh.

But when he got to his new home, he couldn’t get a job. Why? Because unbeknownst to him, his potential employers had Googled him, and found out he was a deadbeat dad.

But damn, if I had talked to the correspondent today, I could have just pointed her to Tim Bray’s thoughts:

Today, I’m angry. A person with whom I have to deal is misbehaving and may destroy something good through bad, inexcusably bad, behavior…..Suppose I posted a piece here whose title was that person’s name, laying out in succinct but forceful detail the nature of the bad behavior, solidly illustrated by pointers to online examples. Suppose I offered a calmly-worded opinion that nobody in their right mind should consider hiring, or doing business with, or dating, this person. Suppose some other people who shared my opinions saw fit to point to the attack and perhaps chime in a bit. Given the way search engines work, I’d say that such an attack would be extremely damaging, and very hard to recover from. Would I do this? I don’t think so, unless it was a matter of life or death. But I sure do think about it sometimes.

That’s the power of search: to paint a possibly skewed, damaging, or incomplete picture of a person. Given that engines tend to rank on popularity, and that searchers tend to read only the first few results, who you are in the index becomes, in a very real sense, who you are in the public eye. I’m quite sure Dan Rather has Googled himself lately, and is not pleased with the results.

Jeremy also has some thoughts on this….

We Will Never Surrender

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ballmer2Andy points us to a Reuters story covering the MSFT annual meeting. As the story reports, MSFT CEO Steve Ballmer told the audience that with regard to Google and Yahoo’s lead in search advertising:

“We will catch up, we will surpass.”

I only hope they do it through innovation and service, and not by forcing it down Longhorn users’ throats.

Cnet coverage.

Feedburner, More Advertising Feedback

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moneyOver at his site, Jeremy gives Searchblog his opinion on the Feedburner implementation. Elsewhere, I’ve gotten comments on the AdBrite ads running on the right and below the permalink pages.

Jeremy says:

My thoughts on this:
• The ads are irrelevant–unrelated to the content of the post. Unlike AdSense, they don’t fit in with the context at all.
• The ads are pretty big.
• That space is not well used. Instead of branding, why not show an album cover there? That might get me interested. Maybe.

I have to agree, as does Dick Costolo, the CEO of Feedburner. But I think this issue will be solved shortly, in a matter of months. There will be more choices and more flexibility in RSS advertising, and I sense that given Yahoo’s deep interest in RSS, we will be seeing movement from the big guys soon. Amazon may never solve the contextual problem for sites like mine, which are not really focused on products, but that’s most likely a problem not worth solving.

In any case, when I have a moment, I’ll turn off the Amazon ads. I’ll try more stuff in RSS when it comes available.

As for the AdBrite system, I agree that the ads which show up on my site are mostly crap. A few of them, however, have been endemic or nearly endemic, and that’s because someone made the decision to actually buy an ad, as opposed to the network stuff that runs most of the time. Problem: when someone buys an ad, they look just like the network ads, which is not good – an endemic sponsor should look endemic! I’ll be working on that with the AdBrite folks. Generally, they have a way to go yet. More to come as the experiment continues…