So What IS Microsoft's Strategy For Search?

The reason the media has been obsessing over the Microsoft-Yahoo acquisition story for the past three months is simple: tech writers and ad industry scribes, whose grim task in life is to inject some spark into what is usually a stupefyingly dull stream of self-serving product announcements, were finally gifted with a hot story brimming with titanic egos, knuckle-whitening timetables, unconscionable blunders, and apoplectic shareholders. Suddenly, the SEM world was relevant again, a fact acknowledged by SEMPO chair Dana Todd when she told the New York Post that the Microsoft-Yahoo slugfest had enough juice to put the search industry, which had been "almost dull for the last 18 months... back on the map."

What a relief from the invisible anonymity we search types usually wallow in!

But while the Microsoft-Yahoo drama provided terrific entertainment for us all, it's just a gaudy sideshow, because Yahoo's fate is irrelevant both to the future of search and Microsoft's future role in the search ecosystem. Microsoft admitted as much when it acknowledged that Yahoo was always just a means to an end -- not a strategy but a simple building block in a long-term strategy. So what is Microsoft's search strategy?



$44.6 billion isn't chump change. Yes, there will be acquisitions. $44.6 billion goes a long way, and a quick survey of the market caps of some mature tech companies reveals the kind of value you can get for what Microsoft would have paid for Yahoo. For example, if Microsoft is shopping for users, clicks, traffic, and transaction fees , it could simply buy eBay ($39.4 billion), or even Amazon ($30.2 billion). If it wants to be in front of 53 million wireless users, it could snap up distressed telecom carrier Sprint/Nextel ($25 billion). A more diversified strategy might include snapping up every promising Web 2.0 company or third-tier search engine in Silicon Valley.

Of course, Microsoft doesn't make acquisitions willy-nilly; anything it buys must reinforce the basic troll-under-the-info-superhighway bridge strategy it's been practicing for more than two decades. More importantly, anything that Microsoft does will be part of a long-term plan for dominating a multiplatform world where users increasingly access and share information through a slew of devices that haven't even been invented yet.

Lose a brief battle, win a long war. Google may rule browser-centric, desktop-based search, but Microsoft has already staked out strategic positions designed to control each of the important choke points through which information will flow, including mobile (Windows Mobile) and entertainment-in-the-den (XBox 360 plus IPTV). Google has no meaningful presence here, despite its efforts to extend its franchise into mobile (via Android/Gphone and by forcing open access rules in the recent wireless spectrum auction) and applications. While it may be overstating the case to say that Microsoft has already conceded the desktop-browser search battle to Google, it's clear that winning this short-term battle is less important than prevailing in the long, multiplatform war that's to come.

A glimpse of Microsoft's future. Want to get a good picture of what Microsoft's actual, not hypothetical strategy for search is? Take a look at FAST Technology and Transfer, a company that Microsoft quietly bought in January, a purchase consummated while the media world was distracted by the Yahoo deal. FAST has developed next-generation search technologies fine-tuned to work in new, non-Web environments that don't lend themselves to traditional PageRank/popularity algorithms.

As Microsoft integrates FAST (without the horrible hassles expected from trying to digest Yahoo), you should see some very interesting advances in search materialize in the next 12 to 18 months. Some of them may be nearly invisible (such as the ability to finally begin to index the wealth of multimedia content Microsoft will be bringing to the Xbox). Others may appear in connection with Microsoft's mobile platform.

These advances might not be sexy, but they'll be significant. Someday in the near future, people will marvel that the whole world used to boot up something called a "browser" on a briefcase-sized thing called a "PC" to "surf" billions of Web pages, guided (or misguided) by something called "search engines." They'll be amazed that the infosphere was arbitrarily broken up into "organic" and "paid" results. They'll regard this era with the same nostalgia we hold for the glory days of ARCHIE, GOPHER, and The World Wide Web Worm. By this time, the function we call "search" will have become a hidden utility; a ubiquitous connectedness powering everything, and the discipline we call search marketing will be simply called "marketing."

When will this time arrive? Five years? Ten years? Next year? Anyway you slice it, Microsoft -- the patient troll under the bridge collecting a toll -- will have a piece of this future.

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