Tomorrow Today: Google Universal Search – Part 3: What it means for MS and Yahoo!

Bob Cringely contends that the battle for search is over, with Google emerging the clear winner. With Google Universal Search, Google has put so much distance between itself and numbers two and three, that the incremental return on additional investment into search by either Yahoo! or Microsoft will be negative. Both firms will be better off putting their money in other lines of business.Why has GUS ended the search wars? Apart from standard Web Search, Google’s also ruled vertical search – maps, books, images, and video. (The only exception was news, where Y! did a better job.) So if Y! and MS were to follow suit with their own integrated searches, the top video (or book) results would be on Google’s properties. In fact, the better they made their searches, the more traffic they’d drive to YouTube or books.google.com! Not only does Google do the best job with vertical search, today it also owns the properties where this vertical content resides!

So where does that leave Microsoft? Simple. Microsoft should get out of search. And out of online advertising altogether.

Surprised? Read on.

Microsoft is a company that, after having led consumer computing for a generation, is now finding itself playing follow-the-leader. Over the last few years, its strategy has been plainly, reactive. Its Live initiative (Windows Live Search, Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Messenger, Office Live) was a poor attempt to match Google’s online portfolio, pitting application service against application service. But it didn’t work out. Today, the Live initiative is an acknowledged damp squib.

Why? Because the New Web is not central to Microsoft’s business model. It never has been. In the mid-to-late nineties, when it “woke up to the Internet”, it reacted. And made Internet Explorer integral to Windows 98, added TCP/IP support and made it easy to connect to the Internet (it also bought Hotmail, launched the MSN portal and tried to play ISP). These didn’t seem to me, either then or now, to be part of a concerted strategy to leverage the opportunity the Internet presented. Cut to today. With Ray Ozzie’s “leaked” memo in 2005, the company once again found itself waking up to the New Web. Once again we find a set of ad hoc tactics that don’t collectively define a web strategy. It seemed crazy that a person with the sagacity and vision of Ozzie would talk drivel like “online advertising is the next big revenue opportunity, and therefore we must move everything – Windows, Office, Mail – online, and make money out of ads”. It is almost as if with each generation, the Web is being retrofitted into Microsoft’s business strategy.

In contrast, Google is a company that has been built from the ground up to leverage the “Internet opportunity”. The firm realised that first public, then private data would find its way to the web. It first created tools so that it would have access to all of this data (either by crawling or by hosting this content). Simultaneously, it created applications that people could use to access the information they needed from this data. And it monetized this access.

Microsoft is a desktop applications company. From 1975 to 2007, repeat, it has been a desktop applications company. Further, though it may have had a profound effect on consumer computing, its revenue has come from enterprise customers. Finally, its largest selling products are not its search service, or its MSN portal, or Hotmail, or Messenger. Its largest selling products are its Windows Operating System and Office Application Suite. The mandarins at Microsoft have to consider these facts before running around like confused chicken.

The Enterprise does not “get” the Internet. It gets the network, or, more precisely, the intranet, but it does not get the Internet. There’s just too much data that needs to be kept within the walls of the organization. Two paragraphs ago, I said that Google’s essence is to have access to data, either by crawling or hosting. No large firm is willing, either now or in the forseeable future, to let that happen. This Enterprise market has been growing for two decades now, will continue growing. This is where Microsoft faces virtually no competition from the likes of Google.

How can Microsoft enter a new phase as an enterprise software company? How can it create better applications using the Network? That’s another Tomorrow Today in itself, coming up soon after this series is done.

And Yahoo! ? The Google of the late nineties is foundering. Brad Garlinghouse’s “Peanut Butter” memo seems to have done little more than cause a rearrangement on the company’s board, but I don’t see a strategy shift in the least.

Yahoo should also get out of the search and Pay-per-click advertising space.

What is Yahoo! as a company? As Terry Semel himself stated several months ago, Yahoo! is primarily a media company that is technology-heavy. An online media company, to be precise. Now think of the online advertising world in terms of the Long Tail. Yahoo’s customers were in the “head” of the Long Tail graph – a few thousand advertisers, but each one worth big bucks. Google instead targets the “long tail” with its AdWords model. In fact, AdWords is not effective for large advertisers, but then it was never intended to be.

Yahoo! needs to realise that there is much more to the online marketing world than simply advertising, especially when compared to the sophisticated offline marketing campaigns that professional marketing and PR firms run. Yahoo! would do well to induct that kind of talent onto its rolls. I’m thinking an acquisition of a respected marketing/advertising agency. Being able to use more media like video, audio, images and maps willl increase the richness of future campaigns, With regard to video, having traffic driven to Google’s properties (YouTube) won’t seem so bad once the videos on that website have been created by Yahoo! (PR videos, video ads, videos with embedded ads, the works!)

Online PR, viral and buzz marketing, social network marketing and affiliate marketing are areas that are currently a fishmarket of small fragmented firms, none of whom have the scale or the expertise to cater to truly large clients. They’d be cannon fodder should Yahoo! choose to muscle into these spaces.

Finally, mobile is one area where I believe Yahoo! already has a lead over Google. Its widget-oriented OneSearch service proves that the mandarins at Yahoo! have the right idea. The company recognises that the mobile web is different. Although more intent-based than the PC Web, mobile web is subscription-driven instead of search-driven. OneSearch is a large step down that road. Mobile online communities could be a massive revenue-earner. Google has Orkut and Dodgeball in its armory but isn’t doing a thing with them. Will Yahoo! grab this opportunity instead?

In summary, both Yahoo! and Microsoft have forgotten their company DNA in their zeal to show Wall Street that they’re wise to every Google trick. They don’t have to be. In fact, as we’ve seen in this rather detailed Tomorrow Today, they’re three very different companies operating in three different spaces, playing to their different strengths. The sooner Redmond and Sunnyvale realise this, the sooner they’ll be able to drag these companies out of the morass they’re sliding into.

Tomorrow we’ll wind up by examining what GUS means for Google itself, and where the company could go from here.

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