It is official, the search engine wars are in full swing. On Tuesday, February 01, 2005 MSN officially rolled out its new search solution to all of its websites, including MSN.com. This comes on the heels of growing speculation that Google plans to launch its own browser, possibly in an attempt to attack Microsoft’s greatest strength in Internet Explorer. Is it possible that MSN actually rolled out their search engine to prevent Google from doing the same thing they did to Yahoo! with the release of Gmail?
Google appears to have been planning a browser for some time. In April of 2004 they purchased the domain gbrowser.com (notice the similarity to gmail.com) and recently they lured two of the lead developers on the Firefox browser project to join the Google team. When asked what their role would be at Google, both developers were unable to specify what their roles were. Yet with Firefox’s relative success at chipping away Internet Explorer’s stronghold on the browser market, Google is certain to take notice of the minds that were able to make a dent in the Internet Explorer stronghold.
Google Has a History of Attacking Strengths
The common thought when considering an attack on a competitor is to attack their weaknesses. Google, true to their history of bucking tradition, has a history of doing just the opposite. Rather than attacking their potential competitor’s strengths, Google identifies its competitor’s strengths and attacks those strengths directly. This is exactly what they did when they launched Gmail.
Before the launch of Gmail, the search engine wars were being anticipated by the SEO community. Yahoo! had acquired Overture and Inktomi and had announced its plans to abandon the Google search results. Similarly, MSN had announced that they too would be leaving Google’s search results and would develop their own internal search technology. Both Yahoo! and MSN posed a real threat to steal a significant portion of Google’s search market. However, at the time, Yahoo! proved to be the more imminent threat as they would go to market with a proven search technology in Inktomi and an established advertising network with Overture.
Yahoo!’s real strength in attacking Google was the draw that their portal had. The tool that offered Yahoo! the most certain return traffic was Yahoo! Mail. Although Yahoo! has several different tools that bring users back time and time again, nothing was as powerful as their email system. As people came back to Yahoo! to use their e-mail, or other tools for that matter, the hope was that they would grow to become loyal to Yahoo!’s search results as well.
Google realized the strength of Yahoo! Mail, so they launched Gmail as an offensive on Yahoo!’s greatest strength. At the time Google launched Gmail, they were offering 10 times the amount of space, an obvious attempt to gain press and increase the desirability of Gmail.
MSN Search Provides a Bigger Threat
Although MSN Search currently holds a smaller share of the search engine market than Yahoo! or Google, they are actually the bigger threat to Yahoo!. Yahoo! had the ability to push their search results to the millions of people who come to their portal to use their tools. If Google is able to provide users with the same tools that they find at Yahoo!, users no longer have a reason to visit Yahoo!. However, any computer user who is using Windows most likely will use Internet Explorer, even if it is to eventually download an alternate browser, and we all know that most people are comfortable enough with Internet Explorer to not even look for an alternative.
Because MSN has the constant attention of consumers through Internet Explorer, they have many more channels to push their search results through. Do not be surprised if the next version of Internet Explorer comes with a search bar included as well as more redirects to MSN search results when a bad address is typed in the address bar. As long as MSN has such a strong majority of the browser market they will be able to push their search results.
MSN also has the advantage of developing a new search technology. Yahoo! entered the search engine battles using technology that web searches had been using for years in Inktomi. The problem is that users had already used Inktomi search results and had chosen Google instead. Although Yahoo! made changes to the algorithm that powered Inktomi’s results, the changes were not significant enough to make a strong distinction from Google’s search results. Whether the MSN results will be of a significantly higher quality than Google is yet to be seen, but by developing a new search technology, MSN has the ability to provide users with significantly different results than Google.
Google Will Need To Duplicate Gmail with Gbrowser
With MSN’s search becoming the latest threat to Google’s search market stronghold, Google will once again attack its competitor’s strength. Internet Explorer has recently shown some weakness in losing market share to Firefox, and it appears as if Google is ready to attempt to bring down MSN’s greatest strength.
If Google hopes to have any success in bringing down Internet Explorer, they will need to duplicate the success of the Gmail campaign. When launching Gmail, Google knew that they would make little to no impact on Yahoo! if they were to simply offer an e-mail program that was open to the general public. What reason would a person have to join Gmail if they had a perfectly fine email account at Yahoo!? An open launch to the general public would result in an initial influx of new users, many of which would be curiosity seekers who would quickly forget about their new, secondary email accounts.
Instead of launching an open campaign to invite the general public to participate in Gmail, Google chose to employ a viral marketing campaign of six degrees of separation. No single person had the ability to get a Gmail account unless they knew someone who was permitted to extend an invitation. People who had an account, and who in turn were allowed to give away six invitations to others to join Gmail became Gmail’s primary advertisers. A feeling of exclusivity became quickly associated with having a Gmail account, and soon message boards were filled with people offering just six accounts that they were able to give away. The effect is a brilliant example of just how effective Gmail can be. Gmail did not and will not become the most popular e-mail program in a short time span, but over time the six degrees of separation will make Gmail the most popular email system available (if you know someone).
If Google wants to be at all effective in dethroning Internet Explorer, they will have to reach into their bag of tricks once again to make Gbrowser an option that carries the same desirability that Gmail carried. Google can certainly count on the Microsoft haters to give their browser a spin, but in order to get the audience that really matters, the vast majority of Internet users, Google will need to extend a personal invitation.
MSN Must Act Quickly
Now that MSN has launched their search results, they will need to act quickly to protect against Google making any serious impact on their browser market. MSN has already done several things right. They are the first of the major search engines to offer their search results in an RSS format, opening up their results to all webmasters. They also offer Encarta answers to search results, provide music searches, feed discovery, definitions, provide math calculations, news search, and other features that are becoming increasingly important to offer.
However, MSN has not yet launched its own sponsored links program. Although this is certainly a program in the making, MSN will need to launch this service as soon as possible if they want to compete with Google and Yahoo! on every level.
But more importantly, Microsoft will need to have a new version of Internet Explorer available to launch once Gbrowser makes its debut. Yahoo! successfully dampened the blow of Gmail by matching the increased storage space that Google came out with. If Microsoft wants to keep its browser market share safe when Google launches Gbrowser, it will be important that they answer Gbrowser with a competitive product.
It Is All Very Welcome
The search engine wars are all very welcome. The results of the search engine wars have been nothing but positive so far. The launch of Gmail provided users with significantly increased storage for email. Yahoo! has improved their search results and Google is continuing to try and improve their search results. If Google launches a new browser it will no doubt offer new options that will only help users organize and find information.
The search engine wars have become much more than a war for the attention of Internet searchers. Because Yahoo! and MSN entered the search market hoping their strengths would provide them with the necessary momentum to topple Google, Google has brought the battle to Yahoo! and MSN. The search engine war is now the war of vying for Internet user’s attention through search, email, browsers, news aggregation, etc.
No matter how the search engine wars turn out, the people who will ultimately benefit will be Internet users…and the shareholders of the winning company.