Live Search at a crossroads: Searchification and beyond

On Wednesday, I’ll be at “Searchification” where Microsoft will be presenting their improvements to Live Search, some of which we’ve already seen.  While even the likes of Mini Msft seemed to be pretty impressed by what they saw at the company meeting, the sobering fact is that Live Search has not made much of an impact in the market so far, and continues to mirror the MSFT stock price (that is, flat).

The Nielsen Netratings, Hitwise, and Comscore have all come out in the last week with the latest search comparison numbers.  In all of them, Live Search lost a point or so between July and August, after having gained some (due mainly to the Live Search Club). Search Engine Land put together a Nielsen graph showing search share over the past year:



While there is an encouraging little blip at the end, Live Search has underperformed, and still has yet to make significant gains from where MSN Search was when it was powered by Yahoo.

Gaining search share is a two part problem: building a search engine that’s better than Google, and then convincing people to switch.  There isn’t any question that Microsoft thought building a better search would be easier than it turned out to be. Users both external, and more telling internally within Microsoft, have been unimpressed with Live Search.  Google has proven to be just a much better experience up until now.

That may be changing with the unveiling of Live Search 2.0.  From what little we’ve seen (and we’re looking forward to seeing more at Searchification), Live Search may be catching up in terms of usability and relevance.  The hints we’ve seen about video search may even provide a better experience than what’s available now. 

However there’s another, perhaps even more daunting problem: and that’s how to get users to switch.  While in general search is not “sticky”, that is users are not locked into using one search engine, Google has done well to build a brand around search.  Google means search, it implies (and delivers) quality, speed, and relevance.  The Windows Live brand has had much less success in its clarity of vision.  Live Search will have a lot of work to do to shed the image of a second rate product, an image reinforced by the bungling that marked the first year of Windows Live branding.

This weekend, Hugh Macleod and Robert Scoble started a conversation about Microsoft telling a better story.  That deep pockets alone aren’t enough.  As Hugh says:

I still happily stand by what I said about Microsoft, late last year:

For too long, Microsoft has allowed other people- the media, the competition and their detractors, especially- to tell their story on their behalf, instead of doing a better job of it themselves.

We firmly believe that Microsoft must start articulating their story better- what they do, why they do it, and why it matters- if they’re to remain happy and prosperous long-term.

Let me put it another way: The future of Microsoft, and how Microsoft talks to people in the future, are one and the same. Yes, Virginia, the future of Microsoft is “Conversation.”

Macleod knows what it takes to build a brand, he’s built some pretty successful ones.  How Microsoft talks to people about Live Search will in many ways define its success.

And Scoble is right about expectations.  Just being close in relevance isn’t good enough.  Live Search not only must be better, it SHOULD be better.  This is Microsoft, with lots of money, lots of smart people, and lots of tools. 

The association with Microsoft, and Windows Live, provides opportunities to embed Live Search into services such as messenger and mail, and across Microsoft products (problems with the EU notwithstanding).  The short term success of Live Search Club has shown that there are opportunities to get users to at least try Live Search, if there is enough incentive.  Of course the problem up until now is that there hasn’t been a compelling reason to stay, nor a compelling story being told.

Will Live Search 2.0 make a difference?  What will it take for Live Search to succeed (or is this as good as it’s going to get?)  Leave your comments and questions on Live Search here, and I’ll take them along to share at Searchification.