As the tech world awaits an announcement from Yahoo and Microsoft on their web search and advertising partnership, I'm wondering how such a partnership can achieve its ultimate goal - loosening Google's stranglehold on the highly lucrative internet search market.
Reports from The Wall Street Journal, WSJ's All Things Digital blog and Reuters have said that under the impending agreement (which could be announced today), Microsoft will provide the search technology for Yahoo websites. This will presumably put Microsoft's newly packaged Bing search engine in front of millions of Yahoo search users. It's not yet clear if Microsoft's search engine will be branded as Bing on the Yahoo sites.
Microsoft technology will also be used to pair appropriate adverts with the search results. Yahoo will continue to manage the sales and support of the search ads on its own sites and possibly on some of Microsoft's sites, the reports said. The two companies reportedly will share the profits from search advertising sales at Yahoo and Microsoft web properties. Previous iterations of a Microsoft/Yahoo deal had Microsoft taking over both the Yahoo search and search advertising businesses.
So the reported deal will give a nice boost to Bing's user base. Meanwhile, Yahoo would get to focus on its core strengths: advertising and content. Great, but how is this deal going to put Microsoft and Yahoo in a position to make a serious run at Google? How will Bing win over substantial numbers of existing and potential Google search users?
The importance of familiarity
I'm not seeing it. People generally use the search engine that seems familiar to them. For most people today, that's Google. Google has done a lot to integrate search with its other applications, making it even harder for users to defect.
I'm ready to believe that Bing is a better search engine than Yahoo's search engine; most of the Yahoo faithful will be pleased with it. I'm impressed by some of the innovations the Microsoft engineers have brought to search with Bing, an area of innovation Google has dominated for years. For instance, Bing introduced a left-side panel, called the Explorer Pane, that allows you to quickly choose from among a number of different angles on your search. Bing lets you preview videos in the search results by simply moving the cursor over them, and Bing's method of sorting through image search results is far superior to Google's.
But, in the grand scheme of things, these are incremental improvements, not game-changing innovations. As for larger-scale improvements, I've seen no evidence that Bing's algorithm searches the deeper, darker corners of the web any more thoroughly than Google's, or for that matter, Yahoo's. As for the much-hyped 'semantic search', that technology will indeed drive search's evolution, but over the long term, and it will definitely not be the sole domain of one search engine or other.
If Microsoft and/or Yahoo ever make a serious run at Google in the search business, it will take place over years, not months or quarters. Microsoft will get a quick boost in market share from the addition of Yahoo's search traffic, but after Yahoo, what other substantial search player is left to partner with or acquire? None that I can think of.
Market share figures
Let's look at the numbers to get an idea of what Microsoft and Yahoo are up against. Comscore says Google controls 67 percent of the search market worldwide, compared with Yahoo's 8 percent and Microsoft's 3 percent. Looking at the US market alone, Google controls 65 percent, compared with Yahoo's 20 percent and Microsoft's 8 percent.
That's a wide deficit to make up, against a very strong, and deeply entrenched competitor. Microsoft - a software company at heart - may someday get itself into the same league with Google in the search business, but it's going to take a lot of time, money and radical innovation to get there. Its long-awaited partnership with Yahoo may be just the starting gate.