Retooling the Web

Microsoft was late in recognizing the profit potential of online search. Meanwhile, upstart Google surpassed older search sites such as AltaVista, America Online and Yahoo to become the clear leader in search and, therefore, online advertising revenue.

In late 2005, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and chief technical officer Ray Ozzie wrote widely quoted memoranda acknowledging Google’s success and stating that Microsoft would refocus the company’s MSN division to address the “Internet services disruption.”

The Microsoft executives said the software giant would introduce advertising-supported services to the company’s vast portfolio of services and software, which would enable it to access a greater portion of the growing online revenue opportunities. Microsoft, which had become accustomed to defending a leadership position in desktop and server software, is now on the attack, trying to catch up to hyperactive Google, which has become an incessantly moving target.

Who Should Be Afraid

Although some online entrepreneurs may be fearful of becoming casualties in the escalating competition between Microsoft and Google, it’s traditional media companies that are much more likely to see their revenue streams reduced.

For the overwhelming majority of online sellers and service providers, the Microsoft-Google tussle will create more opportunities than it takes away, observers say. Neither MSN nor Google are primarily focused on the areas of selling products, search engine marketing, developing interactive advertising platforms or generating content. MSN may even provide a boost for the partner companies in its shopping and content portals, since MSN search does not exclude other sellers.

Google likewise opens search to anyone and everyone, and one of its main tenets is to remain inclusive. The company’s unofficial motto is “Don’t be evil,” a play on the nickname “Evil Empire” given to Microsoft by high-tech insiders. So far, most industry watchers claim that Google has remained true to its original precept of exposing the universe of digital information and supporting search through ads. The company does not directly sell products or services, and it continues to derive revenue from sharing in advertising dollars, which creates opportunities for both publishers and advertisers.

However, Google is showing an interest, albeit limited, in software development and distribution. Google now offers a desktop search application and Picasa, an image searching utility that could someday become supported through advertising. Google also reached an agreement with longtime Microsoft foe Sun Microsystems to cross-promote products and jointly market “Microsoft-alternative” applications such as OpenOffice.

Regarding the heightened Microsoft-Google competition, Rachel Lyubovitzky, vice president at search engine marketing company Searchfeed, says she doesn’t see any negatives for her customers. She says that by aggregating consumers who were previously a fragmented audience, the companies are “helping to organize Internet populations so that they will be more receptive to people’s messages.”

By convincing a majority of consumers to have either MSN Hotmail accounts or Google home pages, both companies are gathering information en masse, which advertisers love. However, even these users will continue to spend most of their time enjoying the diversity of content and search services available outside of Microsoft and Google, enabling plenty of room for creativity and innovation.

The online advertising market continues to grow rapidly, and Microsoft’s announcement that it would begin to support some of its multi-billion dollars in software and services through advertising is likely to further accelerate the growth. However, it may take several years for Microsoft to develop ad-supported services for the company’s recently announced Windows Live initiative, so don’t expect a major impact in the next 12 months.

Google’s new search services – which will streamline consumers’ ability to find video, music and text published in books – will likely also create a wealth of new advertising inventory options and contribute to market growth.

During the first nine months of 2005 advertisers spent $8.9 billion online, a nearly 29 percent increase over the previous year, according to Pete Petrusky, director of advisor services for accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Petrusky expects the double-digit growth of online advertising to continue for the foreseeable future, at the expense of other media buys. Online advertising revenue topped $12 billion in 2005, equal to the amount spent in consumer magazines, and closing in on the $16 billion spent on cable, according to Petrusky.

Increasing inventory through new services led by Microsoft and Google could correct what Petrusky sees as an imbalance between the amount of time spent online and the advertising dollars generated. “The Internet captures about 15 percent of people’s media consumption time,” says Petrusky, “… but only 3 to 4 percent of total ad spend” that includes magazines, newspapers, television and radio.

Newspapers, which have been losing revenue to online classified ad services such as Craigslist and Yahoo, will likely have more trouble competing online when both Google and Microsoft enter the arena. Television broadcasters will see their advertising revenue decline further as Microsoft and Google make it easier for people to browse video and audio content online.

Although both companies are rolling out dozens of new services, they cannot keep up with the wide variety of services created by entrepreneurs – there are too many moles to whack for either company to be dominant in all areas. In the areas where Microsoft and Google do compete with smaller companies, having a powerful brand alone isn’t enough to convince consumers to switch, according to Greg Sterling, program director with analyst firm The Kelsey Group.

“New services can’t be marginally better; they have to be much better” to prompt changes in user loyalty, Sterling says. For example, MSN search and Google’s comparison-shopping engine Froogle and Gmail email have had trouble gaining traction. Therefore, there will always be enough room for innovators such as Digg.com, Flickr.com or MySpace.com to innovate and carve out a niche (or be acquired by big players looking to expand).

Competition Is Good

The intensifying Microsoft-Google rivalry will create a better audience for advertisers and will spur innovation in the technologies that enable people to more quickly find what they are seeking. Microsoft’s interest in advertising- supported services will also provide a necessary counterbalance that prevents Google from becoming a dominant player.

“The more options, the better” for advertisers, says Michael Stalbaum, CEO of interactive marketing and advertising agency UnREAL Marketing. For several years Google has been expanding its reach as the largest player in the largest segment of online advertising dollars, so increasing competition from Microsoft could provide an important alternative solution.

According to Nielsen//NetRatings, the volume of Internet search queries grew 15 percent between June and October 2005 to more than 5.1 billion. Nearly 48 percent of those searches were performed on Google, a figure more than double the closest competitor, Yahoo, and more than four times MSN’s share of search.

If Microsoft were able to become a stronger competitor in search, “it would be a positive for advertisers,” Stalbaum says, because Google may have to revamp its pricing structure. “Prices may come down a little bit,” he says.

Technology at the Core

The primary front in the battle between Microsoft and Google is technology, which will force all participants to continually innovate or risk losing their audience. If Google or Microsoft enters an emerging service area, the existing companies have additional incentive to upgrade their existing products.

For example, in early 2005, Google and Microsoft announced separate projects for digitizing books and making the content searchable. In December, publisher HarperCollins responded by announcing it would do the same for its content.

Charlene Li, principal analyst as Forrester Research, says the increasing competition “gives better products, which leads to better spending options” for advertisers. Products tend to be not only better, but come out more quickly once the powerhouses are involved. “Microsoft and Google participating, and to a lesser extent AOL, accelerates the product development cycle,” says The Kelsey Group’s Sterling.

Google Labs produces a steady stream of new services that make information more accessible, and the company’s willingness to share unfinished ideas with developers is accelerating the rate of technological change. Not surprisingly, Microsoft has shown an increasing willingness to publicly preview technologies and similarly make available its application programming interfaces (APIs) for developers to tinker with and enhance.

Opening up the technologies has proved a boon for third-party development. Innovations from Microsoft and Google are giving momentum to the next generation of interactivity online, designated as “Web 2.0.” Google has included Web 2.0 technology AJAX (asynchronous Javascript and XML) to build interactive Web applications such as Google Maps and Google Reader, a program that aggregates RSS feeds.

Google is also testing new technologies for publishers to structure and describe their content to make it easier to search. Salar Kamangar, vice president of product management at Google, says Google Base (which he emphasizes is not a classified ad service) is an experiment in allowing publishers to tell Google how their data is structured so that the company can deliver better results to consumers.

Rather than requiring Google’s search algorithm to guess how to identify an online seller’s product inventory, Google Base enables publishers to disclose how they format information. Data entered into Google Base is then made available to any Google property, such as Froogle or Local listings. This “increases the amount of content that Google properties can draw from,” Kamangar says.

Similarly, publishers looking to optimize their presence in search results can use Google’s Sitemaps tool to reveal how their sites are organized. Sitemaps “enables us to crawl their sites more effectively,” says Kamangar, adding that spidering websites today relies on following trails of links, making it difficult to detect dynamically generated pages. These efforts give publishers more of a say in how technology is used to influence their search standing.

Microsoft’s next-generation browser, Internet Explorer 7, will automatically discover RSS feeds and include tools for managing feeds. Microsoft also built RSS support into the Vista operating system, which will greatly increase the ability of publishers to widely distribute content by opening up RSS to a mass audience. Microsoft is also developing extensions to RSS known as simple sharing extensions (SSE) that will enable feeds to be shared and synchronized. For example, SSE could give publishers and affiliates the ability to automatically share information about advertising inventories and campaign performance.

The efforts of Google and Microsoft to outdo each other with sophisticated publishing and search technologies increases the burden on marketers to keep up with the innovations or risk having their websites appear lifeless by comparison.

Some publishers are using the available APIs for these emerging technologies to create “mash-ups” that mix data from multiple providers to create new hybrid applications. For example, Frappr.com lets individuals map where their online friends are, while ChicagoCrime.org shows where crimes are committed by matching police data with Google Maps.

Targeting Targeted Ads

Advertisers and consumers will benefit from the increasing competition as Microsoft and Google implement technology that tailors the online experience for each person. Personalized searching and browsing will create audiences that are more receptive to marketing messages.

Through the MSN AdCenter platform, Microsoft began offering advertisers a method of targeting ads to a particular demographic by leveraging data collected from its millions of registered users. When a signed-in user comes to an MSN site, Microsoft anonymously matches the demographic information to the visit, enabling the company to know the gender, age and location of the people who frequent their properties.

By enabling advertisers to target users by demographic characteristics, Microsoft is introducing targeted marketing “in an innocuous way,” says David Berkowitz, director of marketing at online advertising agency Unicast. He says targeted advertising will become “arguably the most groundbreaking innovation for advertisers.”

Berkowitz says that rather than competing with Google based on audience reach (quantity), Microsoft is relying on superior information (quality) about its customers to sway prospective advertisers. “MSN’s plan is not really about better software, but about delivering demographics,” Berkowitz says. Having demographic information about a large audience of registered users gives Microsoft an advantage in targeted marketing. “Forty million Hotmail users is a huge asset.”

Senior director of advertising and marketing Eric Hadley says Microsoft will evolve MSN AdCenter to target ads to people who set up personalized home pages on its websites, including the recently launched Start and Windows Live destinations. MSN AdCenter was first launched to support advertisers on its websites, but then will be rolled out to third-party publishers, putting it as a direct competitor to Google’s dominant AdWords and AdSense products.

Hadley says a future version of the MSN AdCenter will integrate a consumer feedback mechanism. “If you hover over an ad [with your mouse], there will be a pop-up window to say ‘why am I getting this ad?'” Users would be able to request not to see the ad again if the product or service is not of interest to them. For example, married people might not want to receive ads for matchmaker services.

A not insignificant challenge for Microsoft to make MSN AdCenter a success will be to build the marketing relationships with national and regional online publishers and advertisers. Determining how to split the business model for its applications and online services between subscriptions and support through advertising places a learning curve on a company built on selling products.

Microsoft and Google are vying to create personalized experiences by customizing search results based on prior searches, tailoring information preloaded onto home pages, and delivering ads based on user actions.

For a user who has not signed in before visiting an MSN site, Microsoft will use behavioral marketing techniques to generate contextual ads based on the person’s experiences on its network of sites. For example, Hadley says if an unknown customer is browsing the MSN Music site and searches for artists Kanye West and 50 Cent, ads for other rap artists would appear.

Behavioral marketing is effective in generating high conversion rates for advertisers, says Unicast’s Berkowitz. However, because it tracks consumer actions in the background, “it is a bit creepy,” he says. Microsoft and Google need to respect privacy when building personalization services to maintain consumer confidence. “A consumer has to decide who is trustworthy and who is evil. That’s going to be a major wild card” in determining whether or not users will feel comfortable in visiting a website.

Berkowitz also says, however, that companies must be careful in their pursuit of personalization services to prevent consumers from having too narrow of an experience. Google is experimenting by personalizing search results based on prior searches, but this increases the “risk that exposure to other things that might be of interest” could occur.

“I wonder how far you want to go down that personalization road before you lose the communal experience entirely,” he says. For example, Berkowitz says that while he is primarily a New York Mets fan, he doesn’t want a search engine to stop recommending articles about the rest of the league.

Looking forward, Microsoft and Google will determine if and how to commercialize the myriad of beta services that are currently under development while keeping one eye on what the other is doing.

Microsoft will learn the ropes of the ad-supported model for services and software while trying to grow and leverage its audience of registered users. According to MSN’s Hadley, the biggest challenge for Microsoft will come after the AdCenter platform is opened to third-party publishers. “How do we absorb all this demand from [large companies like] American Express to mom-and-pop” marketing firms? “As soon as we open the gates, we have to bring people in quickly with high quality.”

Algorithm-obsessed Google will continue to refine its search technology to better match customer expectations. “We are very far from being where a person can ask a question that brings back a single answer” that matches what they were looking for, says Google’s Kamangar.

For the rest of the decade and likely beyond, Microsoft and Google will continue to play the leading roles in the unfolding drama of the growth of the Internet as a platform for commerce and entertainment. Their perpetual sparring will spur all of the players involved to perform their best to satisfy the audience.

JOHN GARTNER is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. He is a former editor at Wired News and CMP. His articles regularly appear on Wired.com, AlterNet.org and MIT’s Technology Review.com.