We'll start with health search, which Mark Simon covered in yesterday's column in a shameless attempt to steal my thunder. It worked, but it's a big enough story that it's worth at least a few more thoughts on the matter.
As a quick recap, Microsoft last week announced its acquisition of Medstory, with employees of the startup joining Microsoft's recently formed Health Solutions Group -- indicating that this is just a small sign of what's ahead. Why does Microsoft need it? Consider a search for "diabetes" at different sites:
At search.live.com, you get the normal MSN search results and ads, but above the ads on the right, there are eight related search phrases to refine the results. The related searches are nice, but you get those for any search; there aren't specific health search improvements.
Searching for "diabetes" at health.msn.com, the results are a puzzling list ranked with star ratings. Some listings referred to Microsoft's DiabetesCenter, which has great content but isn't available directly from the search results. Here, the search functionality has been neglected entirely.
Now, on to Medstory, which ups the ante on refining results. Atop the natural search results (there are currently no ads), there are 40 ways to refine results in eight categories. Clicking "view more" shows 200 refinement suggestions. Medstory's acquisition will bring more attention to some other players, such as Healthline with its doctor-reviewed results and Symptom Search, and Kosmix with an entire portal that comes up for the "diabetes" search (another startup was featured in an October column).
What if running a paid search campaign triggered a change in your natural search rankings? In one example, the search engine could detect a more relevant URL in your paid search ad than your natural listing and automatically swap the natural listing's URL with the paid one. In another example, the natural listing could disappear entirely if the ad is deemed more relevant.
Who could imagine doing such a thing? Microsoft, according to a recent patent filing unearthed by Search Engine Land's Bill Slawski. The patent, "Systems and Methods for Removing Duplicate Search Engine Results," offers dozens of variations of these scenarios, so Microsoft is covering all bases. Yet it's hard to imagine any of these instances benefiting anyone listed in Microsoft's paid or natural results.
Marketers often find higher click-through and conversion rates when they have a presence in both the natural and paid results. More importantly, the two are often used for different purposes. With high rankings in natural results, marketers can expect more traffic and can sometimes claim multiple spots in the first page of rankings. With paid search, marketers have complete control over the ad, including the messaging and landing page. These links are not meant to be interchangeable.
Just because Microsoft has a patent (which was first filed in March 2003) doesn't mean it will ever use it, and it's possible one or two of the 40 claims could have a positive effect for marketers. There's nothing wrong with hoarding intellectual property. Here's one case where the "if you've got it, flaunt it" maxim shouldn't be followed.
Microsoft recently retooled its adCenter Labs, with six services labeled new and seven coming soon. It also has a new section, Emerging Media, that focuses on video. The first feature, Video Hyperlink, offers a demo similar to something I've seen Microsoft tinker with since 2005, if not earlier, where you can click the clothing worn by people in a video and get more information about it or buy it. This video hotspotting is fun to play with, and it's smart for Microsoft to show its movement in that direction. A number of startups, meanwhile, have also developed their own hotspotting technologies; expect to see Avant Interactive and Compulsion featured in this column before long.
The other Emerging Media feature shows how you can add comments that overlay on videos so that others can search the video by keywords or tags. It didn't run perfectly on my computer, even when using Internet Explorer, but it's another flashing beacon that Microsoft aims to tackle some of the current issues with indexing and searching videos.
Clean Bill of Health
Taken together, these are three very different moves from Microsoft, and they're not the only recent ones worth noticing. Given its recent developments with health search -- the one form of vertical search that can be a matter of life or death for consumers -- and video search -- the field of search that should rack up Most Improved awards this year -- Microsoft is aiming to stake leadership ground in the most important (and potentially most lucrative) search fields. With any luck, it'll be too busy to follow through on old patent filings.