In 1997, columnist Jesse Berst was looking at MSN-then also known as "Microsoft Network." Back then, MSN was an ISP available via Windows 95, which gave it a perceived advantage over the competition-especially AOL. But back then, Berst, writing in the magazine Windows Sources, argued that Microsoft had "much more serious competition in the form of Yahoo!, Excite, and Netscape. "Those companies have 'portals'--Web sites that act as gateways to the Internet, funneling millions of users to other places. In the case of Yahoo! and Excite, those users come by to use the search services. The top four search services--Yahoo! (www.
At the time, Berst couldn't have known exactly who the major players would be-but he got the general idea right: portals, not ISPs, would become the metropolises of the Internet and search engines would become the thing that lured people there in the first place. Today, a look at the three big competitors left standing shows a growing consensus about what a portal should look like: a search engine that delivers relevant results, branded information services, and an interface that is simple, interactive, and easy to customize.
All of this seems more or less obvious now, but as a brief history of MSN shows, this model has been a long time coming. In bundling MSN with Windows 95, Microsoft was going after ISPs like AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe. But reviewers were underwhelmed and the gold rush of subscribers that Microsoft hoped to attract never came. So in early 1999, Microsoft poured $18.
Even today, MSN's brand identity has been blurry: not as clearly portal-like as Yahoo!, not known for its searching prowess like Google. But Microsoft is nothing if not persistent. So the company has gone back to the drawing board yet again with another re-launch. The MSN name is out. Windows Live is in. Live.
But Google is not standing still. Once known strictly for its search engine, the company has been adding a portfolio of features. One of the latest additions is Google Finance Beta, which offers investors interactive charts, company news, blog references, discussion groups, and the ability to put up a personal profile. An AJAX-developed feature lets you correlate stock performance with related news by dragging a company chart back in time along the Y-axis. Lettered boxes along the way each point to a specific news event. Why did the Google stock start climbing on March 24th? Perhaps it was because the company joined Standard & Poor's 500 Index after quadrupling in price.
Google Finance challenges a better-known site: Yahoo! Finance, whose simplicity and ease-of-use have long made it a favorite for investors. But Yahoo! isn't standing still either. Its Yahoo! Maps Beta (in this sector, almost everything follows the Google model of staying in beta for months, with near-continuous small upgrades) has dragable, zoomable street maps that include live traffic updates showing congestion and repairs, as well as directions and points of interest. The new version, in fact, strongly resembles Google Maps, which lacks the traffic feature, at least so far, but offers stunning satellite imagery that allows users to zoom right down to their own house.
Three starting points with a growing convergence
Microsoft's Windows Live resembles Google. Google is copying Yahoo! Yahoo! is copying Google. If you are looking for where any of these three major Internet brands is headed, start with the competition-because each is borrowing from the others. The urge to converge is so strong that when Google lacks a feature, like Yahoo's successful online dating service, it invents one as a spoof on April Fools day:
When you think about it, love is just another search problem. And we've thought about it. A lot. Google Romance(tm) is our solution.
Google Romance is a place where you can post all types of romantic information and, using our Soulmate Search(tm), get back search results that could, in theory, include the love of your life. Then we'll send you both on a Contextual DateTM, which we'll pay for while delivering to you relevant ads that we and our advertising partners think will help produce the dating results you're looking for.
To be sure, Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft each started out with a different conception of what they wanted to be on the Web. Yahoo! has long been known as the Web's premier portal-not just a jumping off point for other destinations on the Web, but a resource in its own right, with services like finance, weather, and entertainment. A configured My Yahoo! page can show you what's playing in local movie houses, display news stories and the week's television schedule. The company was among the first to offer an independent webmail site. Its shopping engine remains one of the best and most visited on the Internet. Perhaps most importantly, Yahoo! has also been the premier example of the benefits of a simple design. Even in this age of high bandwidth, Yahoo's emphasis on text and static graphics has been a chief attraction.
But when it came to search engines, Yahoo! never quite established its brand-using different companies' technologies and, in time, falling behind the search engine, Google. For its part, Google has made a name for itself as the search engine most likely to deliver relevant results high up in the search. So fast and accurate were the searches that, for many people, the engine itself has become a kind of micro-portal-the home page from which you launch directly into the Web. Google also figured out a revenue model that has made it a wealthy company. Instead of relying on banner advertising, it promoted the idea of "Sponsored Links"- results based on a search that pay their way onto the user's screen. The idea seems to suit everyone: users aren't put off by distracting advertising while advertisers only pay to be viewed by people who have at least a passing interest. Search on "sunglasses" and Oakley is the first "official" search result, while SunglassesDiscount.
Meanwhile, Microsoft's MSN portal has lacked many of these virtues. The site design was cluttered, making it difficult to figure out what is offered. The branding itself has been confused. What's the difference between a Hotmail and a Passport account? I've had the former for years, and I'm still not quite sure. With Windows Live, Microsoft's offerings are finally coming clear.
How this plays out in terms of actual traffic gets complicated-and figuring out the leader depends on what you are tracking. In its March reports, Nielsson/
In looking at the popularity specifically of search engines, Nielsson/
The converging model: simple, interactive, and personal
What makes the Windows Live site interesting is not its current configuration, but where it's heading-or more precisely, where Microsoft and its competitors are all headed together. The key ingredients are simplicity, interactivity, and precise customization. The key technologies are the AJAX development tools and RSS.
Yahoo! and Google are already known for their clean screens. Now, Microsoft is following suit. Live.
In new portal development, AJAX development is everywhere. You see it in the continuous scroll bar on Live.
AJAX is also now being used for the personal pages on Yahoo!, Google and Windows Live. As you customize the screen, you can drag-and-drop elements into the arrangement that suits you. The effect, as with much AJAX development, is to make a Web application behave as if it were residing locally.
Real Simple Syndication has become the de facto standard for subscribing to material on a website. First used to track blogs, RSS is now found on most media websites as well, with the New York Times an early front-runner. You can still install one of several RSS readers to amass and track all this information, or use the built-in reader found on FireFox (Live Bookmarks) or the forthcoming one on Internet Explorer 7.
But many people will amass RSS feeds on their personal page. Yahoo! was the first to figure this out. The site's My Yahoo! page has a search engine dedicated to RSS feeds. Enter "Yankees," and you can subscribe, say, to MLB's New York Yankees News, Yankees Newswire or YankeesSuck.
Breaking habits is hard to do
Can Microsoft with Windows Live actually change the rankings? "Most people are mistakenly assuming that it's going to be a case of Microsoft versus Netscape again and we're going to have a big battle between Microsoft and Google and one of them will win," said Danny Sullivan, editor of the website Search Engine Watch. "People use Google because it works well for them. They have no particular reason to go over and start using Microsoft's search engine. It's like a habit, like smoking. You can give it up at any time, but a lot of people don't. Whether Microsoft will eventually gain share, it's hard to say. They are going to have a big challenge to do that. They are facing not just Google, but Yahoo! as well."
Sullivan was unimpressed when the Windows Live site rolled out. "All they had done was give you an infinite scroll," he said, referring to the AJAX-powered feature that allows users to continuously scroll the page, rather than fetching individual pages. The technique was first introduced in an application called LiveGrid, developed by Sabre Airline solutions. "But it's hardly rocket science for the other search engines to catch up to this. It's not going to be the 'secret sauce' that woos people away from Google."
As for Google, Sullivan calls it a "stealth portal" It's got most of the features that Yahoo! has, but they are somewhat hidden behind the still-simple home page. Google appears to be easing its users into thinking of it as a full-service portal service, but is moving slowly so as not to dilute its vaunted search engine.
Sullivan compares this three-way race with the television network model, in which a few entrenched companies battle it out. "There will be good seasons and bad seasons for each of the networks. But it's very difficult to become a network, and it's also very difficult to fall apart as a network."
Sidebar: Smaller Engines Find a Niche
In the land of the giants, you have to find a niche. That's been the strategy of the countless other search engines circling the globe. Some are dedicated to a specific country or region, others to finding a narrower band of information. There are shopping engines, multimedia search engines, search engines for kids, travel search engines and more.
Some search engines do universal searches, with a twist. That's the tact taken by Rollyo, whose tagline is "roll your own search engine." The idea is that a search engine can't necessarily figure out your intent-so that when it searches the Web, it looks everywhere-rather than at those URLs that could answer your question. Or perhaps you are a fan of Scarlett Johansson and have a few specific sites you want to search.
Rollyo is powered by the Yahoo! Search engine, but lets you list specific URLs (up to 25) where you want to look. The resulting "searchroll" can be made public for others to use. Rollyo has prominently posted some searchrolls created by others. One of them is for Scarlett Johansson, which pulls material from lostinjohansson.
Another approach is taken by Feedster, which was founded in March 2003 and now has 19 people working in its San Francisco headquarters. "Feedster is fundamentally a search engine for feeds," said Chris Redlitz, president of Feedster, Inc. "We search and discover feeds, converting XML into an HTML format. We do that on our site, as well as through an API for partners." The feeds primarily come from blogs, podcasts, and news sources. Redlitz says that companies are also beginning to use RSS to notify customers of updated products and services as a better alternative to email, with its spam-related problems. The Feedster index is updated in near real-time via a Web crawler that seeks out new feeds. The site also monitors the ping servers, which are single-point notification centers for RSS updates, using XML-RPC signals issued by authoring tools.
The company is gaining visibility not only through its own site, but through links "Traditional publishers are interested in user-generated content," Redlitz said "But there's so much of it that you have to figure out how to sift your way through it in order to pick out those nuggets of interest."
For example, a newspaper running an article might be interested in presenting the conversation around that story from blogosphere. "We're able to aggregate and filter that information, then potentially provide it to a publishing partner-giving them a feed directly from the index." Partners include Boston Globe and AOL. For end users, the key advantage of Feedster is to subscribe to a search using an external aggregator-essentially creating your own custom meta-feed based on the site's index.
When I spoke with Redlitz, Feedster was planning its first site outside of North America-in Japan-through a partnership with Matsui. He said that while the use of RSS in Japanese lags behind the United States, the country is catching up. "For publishers, RSS is an orientation," he said. In the United States, the New York Times had been surprised by some online technologies that bit them in the ankles: Craig's List, an set of local online bulletin board for everything from online dating to selling furniture, has cut into newspaper classified advertising while more specialized sites like Monster.
An obvious question facing Feedster is whether the larger search engines will continue to encroach on this territory with their own subscriber feeds. Indeed My Yahoo!, to some extent, already has. Redlitz says that the problem though is fundamentally a different problem than the page-ranking algorithms of Google was designed to solve. Last year, the Feedster index grew five-fold and now tracks some 30 million sources. The challenge is to pull up content that is both timely and relevant. "Google looks at the inbound links to a page, but that technique doesn't work well with feeds, especially with blogs." Redlitz says that Feedster's value is in both maintaining the largest feed index, and delivering the most relevant results when that index is searched. "That's an advantage of RSS being our main focus," he said.