Memo to Steve Ballmer: Just Ask Them!

March 20, 2009
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Dina Bass from Bloomberg reports today that Steve Ballmer is talking smack about Google:

“Google does have to be all things to all people,” Ballmer said yesterday in an interview in New York. “Our search does not need to be all things to all people.”

That is an interesting take on the search market–an attempt to turn a bug (Microsoft’s 8% market share vs. Google’s 63%–at least in the United States) into a feature. Ballmer essentially claims that Google’s near-monopoly stifles its innovation.

I agree that Google hasn’t been particularly innovative when it comes to search interfaces, but I’m not persuaded by Ballmer’s hand-waving “innovator’s dilemma” reasoning. Besides, as Chris Lake at Econsultancy notes, “it’s hard to know exactly what Microsoft is trying to be, in terms of search.”…


Dina Bass from Bloomberg reports today that Steve Ballmer is talking smack about Google:

“Google does have to be all things to all people,” Ballmer said yesterday in an interview in New York. “Our search does not need to be all things to all people.”

That is an interesting take on the search market–an attempt to turn a bug (Microsoft’s 8% market share vs. Google’s 63%–at least in the United States) into a feature. Ballmer essentially claims that Google’s near-monopoly stifles its innovation.

I agree that Google hasn’t been particularly innovative when it comes to search interfaces, but I’m not persuaded by Ballmer’s hand-waving “innovator’s dilemma” reasoning. Besides, as Chris Lake at Econsultancy notes, “it’s hard to know exactly what Microsoft is trying to be, in terms of search.”

Lake goes on to make an excellent point:

Search has always been about intent. That’s essentially what a search query is: an indicator of intent. You want something, you need something, you mean to purchase something, you’re going to do something.

But most queries do not reveal the exact nature of intent.

And here is the money shot:

The search engines might be able to determine intent automatically… But for me nothing works as well as asking the question, and seeking out some explicit data. Ask the question!

Yes, it’s like Feynman said: you just ask them! So much effort in the search industy aims at coming up with more clever ways to divine the user’s intent automatically, and so little focuses on building better tools to work *with* the user. Yes, I’m just beating the HCIR drum again–it’s what I do here. :-)

But I can’t let a moment like this pass without pointing it out. If Microsoft wants a serious shot at Google, it should invest less in bribing users and more in HCIR.

Sadly, as Silicon Alley Insider’s Eric Krangel learned from a discussion with Microsoft Search director Stefan Weitz, “Microsoft doesn’t want to scare off users by introducing any dramatic changes to what people expect from the search engine experience.” Or, as Krangel summarized it pithily, what we can expect are “tweaks.”

I understand that Microsoft can’t ignore the fact that users have been trained on Google. But Microsoft is in a market where it has little to lose and everything to gain. This is the time to be bold, not conservative. Moreover, some the best HCIR researchers are working for their own research division! Want to build a better search engine? Just ask them!

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