Until this week, Microsoft officials presented an unambiguous position on search: Microsoft is No. 3, but it would keep trying and trying until it unseated Google. To get there, Microsoft planned to pour time and money into building both its desination search (www.live.com) search and convenience search (i.e., Live Search integrated into Microsoft and third-party sites and products) offerings and strategies.
But starting this week, various Microsoft brass began spreading some very different messages about Microsoft's search ambitions. In an interview with News.com, Live Search chief Satya Nadella made it clear that Microsoft's new, nearer-term (and more attainable) target is getting its base of Live Searchers to do more searching on MSN by improving the relevance, speed and size of the Live Search index. Nadella told News.com:
"I would say that in the fall you will see us, just because these 70 million users (who have tried Live Search) today are our lowest hanging fruit in terms of being able to increase the engagement with them, that we will put a lot of energy in just marketing ourselves through MSN."
On the advertising side of the house, Microsoft, Microsoft is downplaying even more its one-time goal of catching Google. Brian McAndrews, Senior Vice President of Microsoft's Advertiser and Publisher Solutions (APS) Group, told the New York Times that Microsoft is trying to decouple online advertising from Web search. Instead of tying advertising to search results, Microsoft is proposing a new ad-measurement system called "conversion attribution," which, the Times explains
"would track all of the online places where consumers see ads and give advertisers a fuller picture of the various ways that consumers reach them. Tracking is important, because the site that gets credit for prompting a user’s visit is the one that gets paid for it."
Instead of assuming that users click on an ad because they discovered it via Google's search engine, Microsoft's contention is that people often go to an ad after seeing information elsewhere. The Atlas division of Microsoft's aQuantive subsidiary will allow advertisers to see "a log of all the places on the Internet where people see ads before going to the advertisers’ Web sites," the New York Times said. "The data is based on individual computers’ electronic signatures, not individual people."
Microsoft is not going quite so far as to say that search market share doesn't matter -- to vendors, consumers or advertisers. But company officials are definitely trying to change the way success is measured in the search space, which isn't surprising, given that Microsoft still can't seem to break the 15 percent search market share milestone.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Microsoft is attempting to change the ground rules around search in a different way -- by testifying before Congress as to why Google's proposed merger with DoubleClick is anticompetitive. Read my ZDNet blogging colleague Larry Dignan's dueling-banjos take on the Microsoft and Google testimony here.
Will any of these moves give Microsoft a leg up in the growing online-advertising space? The jury's still out on that one (pun intended).