How Microsoft Can Beat Google In Search

Last Updated May 27, 2009 12:23 PM EDT

Would-be Google competitors in Web search make two fundamental mistakes that doom their efforts from the outset: one is competing with Google on its own terms, and the other is drumming up hype that their search engines can't possibly match.

But Microsoft's new Web search engine, apparently dubbed Bing, may well avoid both pitfalls and emerge as a true giant-killer.

The key is changing the rules of the game, because Google has indisputably won the search game as it's now played, which is search based on keywords. Vendors have retired their butlers and re-branded themselves to look more "aLive," all to no avail, because the insurgents were trying to beat Google based on better keyword search. And fighting Google on its own terms is like trying to face Goliath with a full suit of armor.

And as Malcolm Gladwell recently described, fighting in a traditional manner would have been playing into the Philistine's giant hands. David's genius was to shuck the armor, and the elaborate ritual that went with it, and to use his speed and agility to beat Goliath, not as his own game, but at an entirely different game governed by David's rules. Gladwell reports that political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft found that underdogs have a much better chance of beating Goliaths when they fight like Davids (63.6%) than when they don't (28.5%). "When the world has to play on Goliath's terms, Goliath wins," Gladwell wrote.

Gladwell noted another oddity: most underdogs actually try to win by using rules established by the favorites, noting that George Washington almost lost the Revolutionary War when he abandoned the guerrila tactics in favor of British-style orderly battlefield strategies, because those were the rules and values he was brought up to respect. And this is exactly what Google's competitors have been doing all this time -- perhaps until now. As my colleague Erik Sherman wrote yesterday, competitors have been attempting refinements to an existing model.

Joe Wilcox is one long-time Microsoft observer who expects that Bing will allow users to search the Web using natural language rather than keywords, adapting technology gained with Microsoft's acquisition of PowerSet, that would allow people to search in ways that correspond more closely to how they actually think. "It's like 'where are my car keys,' not, 'car keys.' People don't think in key words," he said.

Wilcox told me, "that's the only way they can beat Google -- they can't play the keyword game."

Yahoo is clearly thinking about changing the ground rules of search as well, as its CTO Ari Balogh recently noted during a technology conference sponsored by Reuters.

Core to great experiences for people online may not necessarily be this version of search... I believe search is going to be far richer ... there's a whole other round or two to go in the search game and that's where we intend on playing.
Google's entire business model is based on keywords, making it difficult for Google to respond quickly to a shift away from that model. Microsoft, on the other hand, has nothing to lose by trying something totally new. If Microsoft really is changing the nature of search, Bing will be a gaudier hit than the Bada Bing.

[Image source: Wikimedia.org]

  • Michael Hickins

    Michael Hickins has written about technology and business for BNET, InformationWeek, InternetNews.com, eWEEK -- where he was executive editor from 2007-2008 -- The Curator, Pseudo.com, Multex Investor, Reuters, and Conde Nast's WWD.com. Hickins is the author of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, a collection of short stories published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991. He also published Blomqvist, a picaresque novel set in 11th century Europe, in 2006. Hickins remains passionately interested in the intersections of business, technology, politics and culture, and endures a life-long obsession with baseball. He is married with two children and lives in Manhattan.