Monday, August 11 2008, 11:20
Three ways to make Live Search different
Folks in the Live Search team do not have an easy task. Their main competitor is strong, has a very efficient product, and has a much better (who said cooler?) image. Even worse, by being the almost-monopolistic leader of the internet search market (at least in Europe), it can shape the taste and expectations of almost all users. Therefore, an obvious solution for other engines would be to copy Google. They have this super killer feature that brings users to their website? Let’s copy it! Their interface is all white with just a text box in the middle? Let’s have the same! Many people, including many Microsoft employees, think that a successful Google competitor must have a similar look and similar features, and that the only differentiation criterion will be result quality.
My own opinion could not be further than that. What I think is that the most different Live Search will be from Google, the more chances it will have to get some more market share. Of course, there are some good ideas that can be transposed from Google to Live, but always being a copycat will just always put you a step behind in the race. And quite interestingly, the Live Search team seems to agree on this point, as they have released a couple of innovative features that are still limited to the US market, but that could make a real difference when they become widespread over all target markets. Let’s have a little overview…
When you want to differentiate two similar products, the most obvious way is to compare prices. The difficulty here is that Google is already free (which is not that true when you think about it: Google is “free” because of advertisement, but advertisement makes product prices higher). Therefore, the only way to make Live Search cheaper than Google would be to give away money to users. It sounded funny a few years ago, it is happening now.
Let’s have a look at a Live Search derivative called Search and Give. For each query you perform on this website (which uses the Live Search engine of course), Microsoft will give one cent to a non-profit organization of your choice. One cent is not much, but little brooks make big rivers: more than $350,000 have already been raised after nine months. Surprisingly, this website has not been much advertised, but it is actually quite common for Microsoft to be relatively stealth about its charity operations.
Search and Give, powered by Live Search
Much more spectacular is the more recent Live Search Cashback. The title sounds exactly as it is: users search an object through Live Search, they are directed to a partner website to buy the object (the most prominent being eBay), and if they buy it, they eventually get back up to 35% of the object price in cash, directly to their Paypal account. For people who want to buy expensive stuff (especially electronic devices), this is a real incentive to come and use Live Search to find their object, since the reward can be of several hundreds of dollars for laptop computers or reflex cameras. Many observers think this is the main reason for the significant market share increase of Live Search between May and June, just after the Cashback release.
From a completely different point of view, Google is well-known for its simplistic interface, with the event-driven Google logo, the plain text box, and both “Google Search” and “I’m Feeling Lucky” buttons. Until a few days ago, Live Search page had quite a similar look, only with some Microsoft-flavored differences. Some people will call it a sober interface. But everything is a matter of perception and marketing, so what about calling it "boring"?
Live Search, before
From last week, the Live Search front page has significantly changed, at least in the US market (little trick: you can check what it looks like outside the US by simply adding the target market in the URL). Instead of having a plain white background, there is now a real full-quality picture, making the whole page much more lively. For instance, during the Olympics, there is a sports live action picture that changes twice a day. Most importantly, the implementation of this feature was very well thought and executed, as the picture loads in the background only after the vital elements of the page are indeed displayed (text box, search button and tabs). Therefore, there is no loss of search usability, whereas there is a significant “coolness” gain in user experience.
But much more impressive was the “hotspot” version, which unfortunately disappeared temporarily from the home page (probably because the picture changes too often during the Olympics to have well designed hotspots). In this version, the background picture had four hotspots on which the user could click in order to launch picture-related queries. For example, one of the previous pictures was taken from inside a Finnish glacier. Using the hotspots, you could find the glacier location on Live Search Maps, get more pictures of ice sculptures using Live Search Images, or get information on crampons using Live Search. True, this is neither a killer feature nor a very useful one in itself. But this was a very nice and very well crafted demo of the various Live Search services.
Live Search, after
Then, the critic we can have is that some users will not like to have such an intrusive picture surrounding the search box, especially if they are used to the plain Google page or the former Live Search page. This is true, but I think this is nevertheless a very clever bet. In terms of differentiation, the Live Search team could not have found a better way to step up, as this kind of features is a real image booster (as long as it does not reduce usability, which is not the case here). And Microsoft in general, Live Search in particular, desperately need this image improvement.
Finally, the field where Live Search seems to be still not very differentiated from Google is the pure technical field. From this point of view, we can expect something big to come in the next months, especially after the recent acquisition of Powerset, a fast-growing semantic search startup. If Microsoft is successful in delivering a great semantic search feature, and with the previous marketing and image innovations still improving, there is a reasonable hope to see Live Search perform better than just “staying alive”. After all, it is good to have a nice engine, but the most important is still to have an efficient one. Wait and see...