There are many people in our industry who are wondering why Microsoft is taking so long to get into the search game.

After all, Google has stolen the market from under their noses. With such a commanding domination of the desktop market, and the ability to set each users browsers homepage, one would think that Microsoft should own the search market.

But results show that MSN search results are just not relevant or adequate.

Knowing this, one would think, that Microsoft would invest in search. After all, Google has been steadily gobbling up search share for over 3 years now (since it became more mainstream) and has proven that you can make money at search. So knowing that Google has been active for three years might make one wonder - why did Microsoft take so long to get into search?

After all, we have just seen a beta of their home grown search. So I started thinking about how Microsoft appears to have dropped the ball.

Turns out, I do not think that they did drop the ball. I think this is part of the overall strategy of Microsoft. They wait until others build it, and let them work out the kinks and bugs. The others make it popular, and then Microsoft sweeps in and takes over. Why do I think this?

Look at what Microsoft now dominates. They own the office software market, they definitely own the desktop computer market, and they are slowly taking over the server market and the gaming console market, and the Back office market (CRM, accounting, etc.).

In most of these instances (except the desktop) Microsoft started out slow, and way behind everyone else in terms of technology and customer base. But it didn't take long to win most of the markets.

In our industry, remember the whole browser war with Netscape? Netscape was THE dominant browser occupying well over 90% of the market. When Internet Explorer was released it was a far inferior product, yet over the next few years Microsoft took over the market. Now Netscape is not much more than a footnote in the history of the internet.

When Microsoft went after the Office market, there were already established brands out there. But like other markets, when Microsoft enters, they do eventually dominate.

The Xbox just came out in the past number of months, and already they are stealing market share from the well established names of Sony and Nintendo. This Christmas I expect that they will cut the price enough that Xbox will outsell the other 2 handily.

Microsoft's integrated CRM/Accounting solution has HUGE competition in the likes of Peoplesoft and Oracle but they are slowly gaining market share here as well.

While Unix and Apache are the most common forms of server on the web, this past month, the share of Apache webservers dropped by a couple percent while Microsoft's IIS gained a couple percent. Not a big deal to Apache fans, because Apache still does own the market, but is it a sign of things to come?

Windows based servers are also taking over market share from Unix/Linux based servers. The Windows server market grew by 12% last year according to Microsoft. While some could be attributed to actual growth, I would also bet that some of that came from users switching from Unix/Linux to Windows.

Which leads to my thoughts on Microsoft search:

If Microsoft can sit back and wait in all of these other markets, and it has proven to be successful for them, why can't they do the same with search? It is quite simple for users to change to a new favorite search engine. Generally people have established patterns of searching. But if they think that there may be something else out there which is better (this is where the Microsoft marketing machine kicks into gear) then a couple mouse clicks and a change in preferences and voila - new search engine.

All Microsoft has to do to dominate in this market is to convince the average user that their search is at least comparable to Google, if not better.

Remember. I am talking the AVERAGE user. Not us, who are in the industry and can prove one way or another which engine produces the best results.

The average user is your parents, or your technology challenged sister, who still has the flashing "12:00" on her VCR, or the neighbor down the street who calls you because his "computer quit" but can't tell you what he was doing when that happened.

These are the users that Microsoft will vigorously market too. Get enough of those, and you've got a pretty significant market share.

But how hard will it be for Microsoft to win them over? After all, these are also probably the same people who, when they launch a browser still see the MSN homepage (because they cannot figure out, or don't care, to change it) but still type in in the search box.

It could be quite simple. On the MSN homepage you will probably see a large banner: "Try MSN search now for free!" or something to that effect. Of course there will probably be the traditional marketing efforts - TV and print ads to name a few - and of course Ballmer and Gates will do the circuit - touting how impressive Microsoft search now is.

All they have to do is show them how easy it is to use, and how relevant the results are. They can do a side by side comparison with Google, but they don't really have to. They just have to convince the average Joe that Microsoft search is good. It may take a couple of years, but by then they will have enough people convinced, so that when Longhorn comes out with integrated search, they will be so happy with Microsoft search that the extended benefits of Longhorn and MSN search tied together, that there will be no alternative.

Google will still be used by us geeks, but we don't rule the search world. Your parents do, in the end.
November 12, 2004

Rob Sullivan is the production manager at Enquiro, Canada's leading search engine marketing firm and one of the top firms in North America. His articles are routinely displayed in other portals on the web including Enquiro's own information portal

Rob has developed an in depth knowledge into organic search engine marketing. Rob's knowledge and experience in organic search engine marketing have helped his clients' sites experience above average growth in visibility and visitors.

Search Engine Guide > Rob Sullivan > Why Microsoft Doesn't Need to Compete