The Inside Word is a weekly feature that looks at compelling industry debates and discussions unfolding on the blogs of employees at digital-media companies.
Poster: Mark Johnson, senior program manager, Microsoft
Blog name: Deliberate Ambiguity
Backstory: Johnson has worked for several search startups, including SideStep, Kosmix and Powerset, which was purchased by Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) last June for more than $100 million. He’s now working on improving the captions that show up under results when someone searches on Bing.
Blog post: He argues in a post that it’s extremely difficult to convince people that one search engine is better than another simply by demonstrating a few test queries, in part because a couple of queries are not necessarily representative. Users need to try out a search engine out for at least a week to make a reasonable evaluation, he says.
“When showing off a new version of Microsoft Word or Typepad or Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) Messenger, a good product-marketing person will not just demonstrate features, but analyze their audience and demonstrate benefits that help users accomplish specific tasks,” he writes.
“A search engine, by contrast, has an extremely simple interface: you type in some words and hope that the engine will cough up pointers to helpful Web sites or give you a direct answer. The inner workings of a search engine, i.e. how those results were produced, are completely opaque to the user. Hundreds of features are used to rank results so that the right Web sites and answers show up on a page when you type in some string of words. Those features don’t surface as demonstrable chunks that can be easily summarized or understood.”
Post-script: If that’s the case, how can a new search engine—like Bing—ever get people to make the switch? In an interview, Johnson said that Bing had a few things going for it: “We’ve done a good job (making the case) that you need an alternate search engine from a marketing perspective, saying, ‘Hey, maybe you don’t find something on a standard search session but come to us and try it out,” he said.
And, the relevance of Bing’s results are generally on par with other major search engines, meaning a searcher who does only type in a few queries isn’t likely to be put off. “This is one of reasons why startups have such a tough time in the search market. Getting good relevance is a really tough problem in itself—it’s not something you can just cook up in a garage. Interfaces are easy to cook up,” Johnson said.
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By Joseph Tartakoff