Nov 28

Scroogled? Microsoft Attacks Google on “Shopping” Search Results

An article in the Washington Post reports that Microsoft is launching an attack on Google, gleefully warning searchers that this previously trusted information source has changed the algorithm for the “Shopping” search feature results such that only those firms that pay to be listed show up.  Although paid search and “sponsored” search results show up on the right side and in a shaded region at the top of ordinary search results, Google prides itself on the objectivity with which its “organic” (merit based) search listings are determined.

For many years, Microsoft has attempted to take share away from Google in the search engine market.  Despite the tremendous resources that Microsoft has available, its Bing search engine has very limited traffic relative to Google.  Some people may end up with Bing as their default search engine when they buy a new computer where this setting is made in Internet Explorer, but otherwise, few searchers seem to make the move to Bing despite its touted advantages.  Getting people to try out Bing out of fear that Google search results in the “Shopping” section may be “manipulated” could be a powerful way gain trial among consumers who may be vaguely aware of Bing but never took the time to try it out.  Realistically speaking, most searchers probably will not feel much difference between the two search engines.  Some people may turn out to prefer Bing for idiosyncratic reasons and may stay.  Others may find Bing interesting as way of getting variety.  Some may stay with Bing in protest.

In its newly created web site Scroogled, Microsoft chastises Google:  “In the beginning, Google preached, “Don’t be evil“—but that changed on May 31, 2012. That’s when Google Shopping announced a new initiative. Simply put, all of their shopping results are now paid ads.”  Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are quoted saying that “Furthermore, advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results” to underscore the ominicity of Google’s policy.

The reality is that only a minority of shoppers actually use the “Shopping” feature of Google.  Most consumers, even when they are looking to buy, tend to use the ordinary Google search.  The “Shopping” feature does not even show up on the first level menu on Google; you have to click on “More” to get that as a search option.  This will, of course, bring up paid search results along with the merit based listings, but that is nothing new and is not different from a Bing search.

Although screen layout is subject to constant change, at the moment, the Google “Shopping” page does not appear to acknowledge the paid nature of search results.  However, in sharp contrast to the “clean” look of the general Google search page, the search screen does look a lot more “commercial” and cluttered.  Thus, although consumers may or may not infer that the search results are paid, the consumer may nevertheless get the impression that this may somehow be a less “pure” search.

Oct 12

Launching Windows 8 with a bang

The Wall Street Journal reports that Microsoft is expected to unleash a major advertising campaign this weekend to introduce the new Windows 8 operating system.  Part of the reason for this elaborate campaign appears to reflect the complexity of what Windows 8 entails.  This is not just a new operating system for traditional computers–there are parallel and tightly integrated versions for cell phones, tablets, and non-Intel based computers.  Apple has had its own operating systems for both computers and cell phones, but although there has been some integration between the two, these systems are nevertheless separate.  Apple periodically issues upgrades and improvements, but these are incremental with no real leaps.  Windows 8, in contrast, will be much more consistent in its appearance and functionality across versions.

Most people have at least heard of Windows 8 and have at least some vague idea of what is involved in the PC version.  Only the geekier element of society has a broader understanding of what is about to be unleashed.  Now comes the hard work for Microsoft in introducing the bigger picture of just what this next step entails. The question is how to get this idea across without creating information overload or otherwise confusing consumers who may have only limited motivation to struggle to understand the details of this new innovation.  This limits the amount of information that can be crammed into one advertisement.  Thus, different ads may need to address different issues.  Since most people are not going to spend the bulk of their weekend watching TV, Microsoft cannot count on people having seen any previous advertisements.  This means that each new ad will need to be understandable in its own right; in this short time span, it is not possible to count on people understanding the background from previous ads.

Back in the 1995 when Microsoft released Windows 95, they also bought extensive advertising time during the launch weekend.  In addition, they reportedly paid the Rolling Stones several million dollars in royalties to use the tune “Start Me Up,” emphasizing the “start” icon on the new operating system.  Although there was a need at the time to develop interest in Windows 95, the need to inform and communicate complex information was much less since consumers were already familiar with the basic idea of a graphical interface from the Macintosh.  This time, the leap is much greater and potential customers are likely to be much more confused.

Sep 24

Intel inside cell phones?

A Reuters news story reports that Intel and other chip manufacturers are seeking to make their contributions to cellular phones more evident.  Intel has apparently already succeeded in getting the “Intel Inside” tag on some of the cell phones distributed in the UK, Russia, and India.  U.S. versions are expected to follow in the near future.

In an industry where brand names such as Apple, Samsung, and Nokia seem to be the dominant factor, this type of strategy could, if successful, turn tables a bit.  Obviously, an Intel chip–even if identified as such on a phone–is not going to trump the Apple brand name, but it could, potentially, elevate the status of lesser known brands.  With Nokia recently  having announced that it is adopting Microsoft’s new Windows 8 mobile operating system, using “premium” components and software may cause consumers to trust manufacturer brand names that they would otherwise not have seriously considered.

How will this type of tagging differ between computers and cell phones?  Desktop–and even notebook–computers are relatively large.  As a result, having the tag is not particularly disruptive.  On a cell phone, on the other hand, space is more precious.  Although Apple notebooks may be somewhat fashionable, a cell phone is, in many cases, much more of a fashion accessory that comes with many opportunities for decoration.  It is interesting that the “Intel Inside” message shown on the sample phone in the article appears as monochrome text rather than an color actual tag that would stand out much more.  Further, the patterned background makes this text much less notable.  There is a very real limit, then, to how much the component manufacturers can ask for.  Cases bought separately by users separately may also end up hiding the content message, whether intentionally or not.  Will Intel and other component manufacturers be able to strike up deals with case and other accessory manufacturers to get the message back in?  Would that, in some cases, even increase the fashion appeal?  I doubt it, but I cannot completely rule out the possibility.

Sep 15

Any hope for the Windows phone?

An article in Business Week reports that about about half of Americans by now have a smart phone.  This figure is increasing by about 2% per month.  Although this growth rate will probably not persist to the point of nearly all Americans carrying smart phones in four years, this is a market in which follower brands run a serious chance of getting left behind by consumers who become loyal to their first or current brands.  The article cites a study saying that 89% of iPhone owners intend to stay with Apple for their next upgrade.  Yes, this is probably an overestimate of the true repurchase rate, but even with a heavy discount, this still leaves a large number of potential customers seemingly preempted before Microsoft gets any shot.

Last year, Microsoft ran a series of advertisements suggesting that the Windows 7 phone system allowed users to access needed information and features in a much more organized and practical way than that provided by the disparate and scattered apps in the iPhone.  This, however, did not prove sufficient to get many consumers to bite.  Although Android based phones now maintain a greater market share than the iPhone, Windows’ current share is very limited.

Microsoft does, however, have at least two tricks up its sleeves.  The decision by Nokia–faced with a dramatic fall in its share of the smart phone market–to abandon its own operating system in favor Windows 8 will certainly create a large incentive to promote it.

Business Week also suggests that Microsoft will put a high priority on promoting the consistency of the computer and mobile versions of Windows 8, thus increasing both familiarity and appeal. Although talk of Windows 8 so far has been confined largely to geekier circles of society, its major redesign is reported to breathe serious new life into a brand that has suffered some unflattering comparisons to the “hipper” Apple over the last half decade.

Will the effort succeed?  There seem to be a lot of “ifs” involved.  Microsoft has come in from behind on numerous occasions in the past, and I would not dismiss its new offerings at this point.  It is too early to tell one way or the other.