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Can Microsoft really challenge Google on its own turf? And why would they even try? John Shade casts a jaundiced eye at Bing, Wolfram Alpha, and other attempts to transcend Google.

Microsoft is an agile company.

You doubt me? I can understand that. I’m pretty sketchy at the best of times. You probably figure that being agile is one of those lean and hungry things, while Microsoft is more of a fat and bloated thing. You get no argument from me. After the first billion dollars or so, any company can pretty much forget about being described as lean, even by its most loyal sycophants. But I’m standing my ground on hunger: no matter how huge and bloated Microsoft gets, it always stays hungry. Hunger got inside Microsoft when it was just a greedy leer in Bill Gates’s eye. Microsoft has hungry DNA. Hungry, paranoid, and quintessentially nerdy DNA.

Yes, nerdy. I hate to tell you this, but as long as there is a Microsoft you will never get rid of the popular stereotype of a computer nerd. Microsoft makes the stereotype true. Microsoft as a company is killer smart, socially inept, and wears orange socks.

This is mere common knowledge.

But agile, you ask? Yes, agile. The Microsoft agility mantra is Agility through Paranoia. Bill Gates—or the spirit of Bill Gates that is the twisted soul of Microsoft—has always been motivated by the certainty that someday some bright young hacker will come along and redefine the market, rearchitect the platform, rewrite the rulebook, move the cheese, or somehow change some fundamental something and rip the rightful riches from Microsoft’s jewel-encrusted belly.

Technically it’s always two bright young hackers. Andreessen and Bina, Filo and Yang, Page and Brin. Why two? Think Gates and Allen: Microsoft itself was founded by two bright young hackers who changed the game, so they know how the game-changing game is played. That’s the Microsoft corporate view of pair programming, as a matter of fact: some pair of programmers somewhere is at this very moment plotting our destruction. You probably didn’t know that.

What Microsoft Wants

So I ask myself, what does Microsoft, in all its bloated nerdy paranoid agility, want? Easy, it wants what Google has. It wants a verb.

The verb “to google” is in the OED. The OED! People who’ve never used The Google talk glibly about googling their acquaintances. Google has attained to the holy pantheon of Verbed Brands. It’s up there with xerox and slashdot and twitter and tivo on Brand Olympus. Even Apple and Sony aren’t verbs. Once you’re verbed, you’re forever. You can’t buy cred like that.

Unless you’re Microsoft.

Microsoft would like to buy a verb. Microsoft has never had a verb. Nobody words a letter or excels a budget. Some people use powerpoint as an epithet, but it’s not the same. Microsoft wants to buy a verb, and the verb it wants to buy is bing. If Microsoft has its way you will soon be binging left and right. You’ll tell your friends to just bing it, you’ll assure your boss or client, hey no problem, I can bing that. You’ll confess to spending all afternoon binging. You’ll become a hardcore binger.

Bing, as you know unless you’ve been living under a hype-blocking rock, is the name Microsoft has given to the latest version of its Live Search technology. I liked Live Search. The name, I mean, not the search tool. Live Search was a straightforward name; it had no personality, but it had character. But Live Search suffered from two problems. First, Google owns search. Second, Google owns the word for search. Live Search? Is that something you use to google things? See? It doesn’t work. It’s quixotic to try to compete with the company that owns the category, but it’s flat-out stupid to try to compete with the company that owns the word for the category.

But Microsoft can’t walk away from search any more than it could walk away from the eyeball battlefield of the 1990s that was hilariously miscalled the browser “market,” and for the exact same reason. The hive mind that is the Microsoft brain trust lives in mortal fear of those bright young hackers who change the rules of the game. And Page/Brin is the new Andreessen/Bina. In the 1990s the emerging center of the galaxy was the browser window; in the 2000s it’s the search engine results page. The SERP.

So Microsoft has to compete with Google but it can’t compete with Google. What’s the solution? Easy: redefine the category. Declare search dead and christen its replacement. Break a bottle over its bow and call it Bing.

Here’s how it’s intended to work: Google owns search and the name for search, but search is just a service. The SERP, though, is concrete. It’s the internet’s prime real estate. That’s what you need to own, and if you can peel that away from Google, you win. So you just need to bribe people to come to your SERP and somehow get them to stay. Then you monetize the heck out of it. Flog those eyeballs for all they’re worth.

OK, you see the flaw in this plan, I suppose. To get people to hang around on your binging SERP, you’ve got to make it sticky. Well, even I know how to accomplish that: the page just needs to be extremely well designed, focused with laserlike intensity on function, rich, simple, and elegant. That’s all. And you just know that Microsoft’s natural inclination is to chintz it up with five flavors of gingerbread and dress it in orange socks. If anyone can create a non-sticky SERP, it’s Microsoft.

The BitTorrent of Search

To see how you might go about end-running around Google with a better SERP, take a look at Cuil. I’m sure Microsoft did. Cuil indexes massive amounts of data, analyzes the context of discovered search terms, and presents the results as a sort of newspaper front page because, hey, nothing says 2009 like a newspaper. Cuil usually figures out that your search term has several meanings and offers the opportunity to dig deeper in any of these meanings in a sidebar, sort of like a Wikipedia disambiguation page.

The key is to claim that you’re doing more than just search. Semantic Knowledge Discovery through Relevance-Intuiting Neural Network Algorithms. I just made that up, but it’s more or less the template. Feel free to steal it. Chances are, I did. Yebol, in fact, promises smarter search through neural networks. Wowd wants to be the BitTorrent of search. Hakia and Clusty do clustering: grouping semantically-related results into categories for further search. So does Cuil, it seems to me. So does Bing. So, in fact, does Google, but we’re not talking about Google here.

The one thing you absolutely must do is to refer to Google’s SERP as “ten blue links.” Because, you know, blue is so 2008.

Or if you’re a super-genius you can skip search entirely and just compute the answers people are looking for. That’s what Wolfram Alpha claims to do. After reinventing science, super-genius and Mathematica language developer Stephen Wolfram retreated to his secret lab in an undisclosed location at 100 Trade Center Drive in Champaign, Illinois. Wolfram is so brilliant that he powers light bulbs, so you just knew he was working on some radical project destined to stun the world.

Now after seven years he has emerged, and the world is well and truly gobsmacked. Turns out the polymathematician inventor of A New Kind of Science has been working on a search engine. Or rather, A New Kind of Google. Or maybe A New Kind of Interface to Wikipedia.

Wolfram Alpha is the eponymous answer engine, capable, according to its inventor, of parsing English-language queries and not merely looking up but actually computing the answers using the awesome computational power of Stephen Wolfram’s brain channeled through Mathematica functions and crunched on multiple supercomputers, ultimately to be displayed as glorious Gif images.

As soon as Wolfram Alpha, or WA, as I like to call it, went online, I was there to poke it with some pointed questions.

Me: What do they call a quarter pounder with cheese in France?

WA: Wait, wait, I know this.

Me: I’m wai-ting.

WA: Assuming any type of McDonald’s Quarter Pounder | Use McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, plain or McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, with cheese instead.

Me: With cheese, please.

WA: McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, with cheese: serving size 1 sandwich (185 g), total calories 460, total fat 24 g, saturated fat 9 g, trans fat 1 g.

Me: Argh. And in France they call it—?

WA: France: country, calling code +33.

Me: Maybe we should try something simpler. Try this: how many ounces per pound?

WA: Result: 0.0625.

Not in my kitchen it isn’t.

Bing: Google, Embraced and Extended

So how terrible is Bing? Now, now that’s not a healthy attitude. Just look where that kind of cynicism has gotten me. The fact is, Bing is “much better than expected,” to quote one reviewer. That’s the kind of treatment you come to expect if you’re Microsoft: “We assumed it would be crap, but it’s not half bad.” Bing is not half bad. Here are some of the areas where Bing is clearly superior to Google:

  • Shopping. For example, when you’re looking for things to buy, Bing has a cashback program. (Microsoft will bribe you to use Bing.)

  • Travel advice. Bing gives good advice on airline travel using the Farecast service Microsoft bought. (Bing excels at promoting Microsoft properties.)

  • Video. When Bing finds a video, it doesn’t just give you one of those blue links, it plays the video for you right there in the SERP. (Testing the video copyright waters for the rest of us.)

  • Protecting you from your nasty self. If you live in India, you won’t be troubled with inappropriate sexual offers because Bing won’t let you search for “sex.” (That’s what Craigslist is for.)

Danny Sullivan, the Seymour Hersh of search engines, complains that Bing clutters up its fine collation of travel, shopping, and local results with paid listings. I think Danny misses the point. Microsoft spent eighty million dollars promoting Bing. (And that was without Jerry Seinfeld.) It’s got to get that eighty million back some way. That’s why Microsoft has redesigned MSN to funnel visitors into Bing. Because they’re not going to www.bing.com. And it’s probably why they’re hawking all that Bing bling. Although Microsoft being Microsoft, I’m not sure whether Bing coffee mugs are intended as a way for Microsoft to make money off Bing or to spend money on Bing.

Because Microsoft isn’t stopping at a mere eighty million dollars. The company’s sitting on umpty billion in cash and doesn’t know what to do with it. Trying to take on Google in search is really a brilliant idea if your problem is how to burn through a few billion fast. So maybe they plan to broadcast those Bing tchotchkes on the breeze like AOL CDs.

Then again, Microsoft doesn’t have to outrun the bear. You know the old joke:

Two lawyers are hiking through the woods and spot an unfriendly-looking bear. The first lawyer pulls a pair of sneakers out of his briefcase (in this joke, lawyers carry briefcases while hiking through the woods, OK?) and puts them on. The second lawyer stares at him and says, “You’re crazy! Bears can run like 35 miles an hour! You’ll never be able to outrun that bear!”

“I don’t have to outrun the bear,” the first lawyer says. “I only have to outrun you.”

It wouldn’t have to be two lawyers, of course, but almost any joke is improved by putting a lawyer in it. OK, just to be repulsively obvious, lawyer number two is Yahoo. And Bing did indeed outrun the second lawyer during Bing’s honeymoon period.

Google’s response to all this sincerest form of flattery? Why, Google Squared, of course. If they’re going to raise the pot we’ll double down, Google says, mixing its card-playing metaphors. Google Squared is a Google Labs project that present search results in tabular form because the dazzling success of Wolfram Alpha and Cuil and Bing and the rest has convinced the Google gang that what you really want on your SERP is structured search result data, and, well, putting it in a spreadsheet makes it structured, right? Right.

As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.

Looking at early tests of this project, I have to conclude that this turkey is not the exception to the no-fly rule. In fact the only explanation I can see is that Google Squared is snarkware. It’s Google’s way of making fun of the competition. They’re such a fun-loving crowd.

But the one shining and enduring truth of all search engines is this: most of what they give you is irrelevant, useless, or wrong. For all its computational power, Wolfram Alpha doesn’t know how many ounces there are in a pound. Clusty and Hakia and Bing and Cuil know, but they get other things wrong. Google gets it right with its first blue link: “1 pound = 16 ounces.” Yay, Google. But for its second blue link it quotes Yahoo Answers: “I thought it was 12, but it may be 16, I don’t know.” Woohoo, Yahoo.

You rarely get such refreshing honesty from a search engine.

John Shade was born in Montreux, Switzerland in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions failed to enlighten him so much as a foot-candle. Today he frets away the idle hours wondering if you got the light bulb joke.