Is Microsoft Getting Social?

Yahoo and now Google have climbed aboard the social search bandwagon. It looks like Microsoft will soon hoist itself aboard as well. Does the software giant have a hope of regaining lost search engine market share? And is social search even a good idea to begin with?

If you’ve been following Internet news in general, you’ll notice an increasing focus on community. Getting visitors to your site to network with each other is only the first step; harnessing that power by tying it to search seems like the ultimate in Web 2.0. Is it any wonder that the major search engines are looking for good ways to tap into this?

Yahoo has been working on social search for quite some time now. The company’s April Fool’s joke this year involved posting to its own search blog its intentions to just buy Web 2.0. “All of it. All of the people, the round cornered boxes, crazy business ideas, and pastel colors.” Of course, it couldn’t make that joke if there wasn’t a grain of truth to it; my vote for Yahoo’s coolest Web 2.0 purchase recently has to be for Del.icio.us, a social search engine.

Google was slower to catch on to this new trend. But anybody who has given its Google Calendar a thorough test drive will see the search engine leader has finally “got it.” The beta scheduling service offers options for sharing your calendars, with whom, and to what degree. The most open option for a calendar is to make it “public.” This status means that anybody who uses Google Calendar can find the events on that calendar when they perform the appropriate keyword search while using the service. It’s not a bad option for clubs and other social organizations who want to get the word out about their activities and maybe attract some new members.

But where has Microsoft been in all this? The software giant was originally slow to catch on to the importance of the Internet, but eventually did come back with a search engine of its own. The revamped version of its search engine, Windows Live, had an interesting beta release recently. You can check out Mike McEwan’s review of it here (http://www.seochat.com/c/a/Search-Engine-News/Microsoft-vs-
Google-Round-2-Windows-Live-Search-Beta/
).

As you’ll see from that article, the company is showing signs of moving in the direction of the kinds of collaborative features we’d expect to see in a Web 2.0-style service, but they don’t seem to quite be there yet. The ability to personalize your search with macros and manipulate how much information you see from your results is nice, but where’s the element of sharing with other Internet users? Where’s the community, in other words?

In the search engine game, Microsoft started out behind, and it has been continuing to slide. ComScore Networks tells the story. In January of 2005, searches using Microsoft’s MSN sites accounted for 16 percent of all U.S. searches, while Google accounted for 35.1 percent. A year later, Google handled 41.4 percent of all U.S., while MSN’s share of U.S. searches had slipped to 13.7 percent.

If you check the figures from Nielsen/NetRatings, the story is even gloomier. According to their research, MSN’s share of U.S. searches started at 12.8 percent in January of 2005, and slipped to 11 percent a year later. Nielsen/NetRatings show both Google and Yahoo gaining share in the same period. Commenting on their market share, Christopher Payne, vice president of Windows Live Search, said “Obviously I’d like that number to be better. We need to do more to differentiate.”

How does Microsoft hope to do that? Well, early last month Neil Holloway, the president of Microsoft’s Europe, Middle East and Africa operations, stated that the software giant’s search technology would be more relevant in the U.S. than Google’s within six months. You could almost hear Microsoft executives wincing at the faux pas. Payne admitted surprise at the comment, and given his position, one would think he’d know. “This is not our philosophy,” he insisted.

Still, there is certainly room for improvement. Research conducted by Microsoft revealed that generic search engines can’t answer half of the queries users ask them. Those aren’t exactly the best odds; who would want to follow a map that was right only 50% of the time? It seems like the search engine field is more than ripe for something new and web-shaking. Bradley Horowitz, vice president of advanced products at Yahoo, observed that since Google released its Web page ranking system, “we really haven’t had another breakthrough for some time now, until social search.” So what does Microsoft propose to do about it?

Justin Osmer, senior product manager for MSN, has the answer to that question. In fact, the tool his division is working on should be able to give the answers to a lot of questions. While the company won’t reveal a name for the tool, it is supposed to be a question-and-answer service that involves social search. The idea is to let users ask questions of other users who have similar interests and concerns, so that they can get answers from people who presumably have direct experience with similar situations.

It appears that the software giant will have some help in this task. According to an article in Business Week Online, Microsoft is working to purchase or create an alliance with Eurekster.com. The two-year-old start-up specializes in social network searching. To quote from the article, “Eurekster essentially combines generic search, through a partnership with Yahoo, with information culled from social-networking sites, such as Friendster.com.” Eurekster’s technology can help people who want answers from a group with particular affinities and interests – so a newbie collector can find out more information about his latest purchase from like-minded collectors. Or, more seriously, a woman with breast cancer facing chemotherapy can get answers from other woman who have undergone the treatment about ways to minimize, or at least cope with, the side effects.

Eurekster boasts two existing patents on its technology, and six more are pending. It seems to be particularly proud of the way its search engines learn from user behavior. It’s even trying to introduce a new word on its website: swiki, a combination of a search engine and a wiki (to emphasize the community element, no doubt). In an interview, Eurekster CEO Steven Marder commented that “If our technology were in the hands of one of [the search engines or a huge media company], it would be a competitive advantage.” With its current position in the search engine wars, and the continuing slide of that position, one could hardly blame Microsoft for figuring it can use all the competitive advantages it can get.

If Microsoft forged a deal with or purchased Eurekster, it would hardly be its only advantage in the social search engine battle. The company has more than 205 million users of its instant messaging program and more than 230 million active Hotmail users. That’s a mountain of data that the company can mine and bring to bear on social search.

The point of all this, of course, is monetization. How do you make money from a community of people asking questions and getting answers? Well, Yahoo’s research on the subject reveals that people are most often interested in e-commerce when they are using social network searching. Advertisers may therefore pay good money to place their ads in areas with a social search component – quite possibly more than they would to place their ads near more traditional search engine results.

When it comes to community question-and-answer tools, Yahoo got there before Microsoft. Its “Yahoo Answers” is apparently exceeding the company’s expectations, but it seems a rather queer duck from the outside. Users can ask a question and get answers from other users; if they are signed in, they can also vote on the best answer given for any question. It almost has the feel of creating reality by consensus. Still, there’s something almost addicting about reading other people’s questions and answers in various categories. Yahoo encourages this behavior with a point system. This is the service Microsoft will need to beat, for openers, with its question-and-answer tool.

Social search in general, and social search leveraged for more advertising income in particular, may have certain drawbacks, as discussed in a recent SEO-related blog. If we’re assuming that people are asking questions related to e-commerce, then as the folks who answer questions get better at directing people, the ads themselves will become less relevant. So users will be less likely to look at (and click on) the ads, not more.

Also, according to the blog, social search can be considered an alternative or more advanced technological tool, and people who use those kinds of tools are usually smarter and less interested in advertising than the average person. After having read some of the questions and answers at Yahoo Answers, I’m afraid I can’t agree with that (no offense intended to either Yahoo or any particular users!). And even if I hadn’t, the interface is so easy and intuitive that I can’t imagine someone who uses a traditional search engine and an email program regularly having any kind of problem with it.

A third point raised was that many people do not wish to ask questions of large groups for fear of looking silly or dumb. Again, I would have to disagree with this point. While you can’t ask questions anonymously, it’s not your actual name that’s attached to the question you ask, it’s the nickname that you’re using in the community. For many people, that’s enough of a mask to grant all kinds of courage.

My own biggest problem with social search in general, and the way I have seen it implemented, is its basic assumption. It runs something like this: get a large enough community together, and the knowledge base will be big enough that, for any query, someone will have the correct answer to it. That’s a tremendous leap of faith. It’s one of the reasons that Wikipedia’s coverage is as lopsided as it is. I sincerely hope that users of social search, from Microsoft or Yahoo or any other search engine, will treat it as it should be treated: a complement to traditional search, and not a replacement for it.

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