Emil Protalinski of ars technica recently interviewed Stefan Weitz of Microsoft’s web search team and the resulting post throws up some familiar arguments about the future of search, but ones that are worth repeating.
Microsoft has been investing heavily in search for some time now and continues to do so in the belief that the current Google experience can be bettered. I remember hearing Ballmer say in 2006 that it is crazy that we have all learnt to search with queries with an average of 2.x words, and that giving the search engine more information by using more words leads to worse results. He then went on to say that Microsoft was good at coming from behind (e.g. spreadsheets and the Xbox) and would do so again in the search market.
Since then it is Google rather than Microsoft that has got stronger, despite the latters $100m acquisition of natural language search business Powerset in July last year.
Judging by the interview with Weitz this lack of progress hasn’t dented their belief that they can catch Google, and in addition to the Ballmer arguments above about the paucity of the current search experience they are now also saying the following:
In the last 6 to 12 months, Microsoft has learned that only about a quarter of users are satisfied with the results of their first query, about half end up having to refine their query or start with a completely different one, and another quarter abandon their search altogether.
the future of search wouldn’t be centered around the “10 blue links” that has become the user’s expectation for web search
These are all good points and when you think that the current search process is really very unatural then it starts to become obvious that there is massive scope for improvement and innovation going forward. This is not to say that Google isn’t great – it is, and the current search experience allows us to do things that we didn’t even dream about 20 years ago, and it is not as if they are standing still either. Nor is it to say that Microsoft will necessarily win here either – they might, but it will be tough for them, although the way they are going about trialing their search products internally and the hints about rebranding both bode well.
What I am here to say is that if you buy into the idea that search has a long way to go then it becomes credible that a startup might succeed in this space. Particularly when the existing players are locked into the existing ‘one search box which returns some links’ paradigm. The next phase of search might be different enough that it is hard for Google to iterate their existing offering to get there. It may even re-frame the problem in a way that is orthoganal to Google’s current thinking, allowing a new competitor to slip in under their radar. Realtime search might work this way.