WEB 2.0 - Ask, Microsoft brainstorm ways to topple Google

Potential exists for improvement in the search user experience

Plenty of opportunities exist in the search engine sector to make a run at leader Google, executives from Ask.com and Microsoft said Wednesday.

Steve Berkowitz, senior vice president of Microsoft's Online Services Group, and Jim Lanzone, Ask.com's chief executive officer, offered up various reasons why they think it's too early to declare Google absolute winner in search.

Among the arguments they shared with attendees at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco is that much potential exists for improvement in the search user experience, which provides an opportunity for competitors to narrow the Google gap. They also pointed out that mobile search is an emerging area that will soon account for a considerable percentage of searches and where the leadership position is up for grabs.

Still, the gap between Google and the other search engines remains wide. In September, people in the U.S. used Google for 45 percent of their search queries, according to comScore Networks, Yahoo came in a distant second place with 28 percent, while Microsoft nabbed almost 12 percent and Ask.com almost 6 percent.

During the discussion, which was moderated by conference chair John Battelle, Lanzone said, as he and other Ask.com officials do constantly, that Ask.com's search technology and tools merit a higher share of search. To that end, Ask.com, a unit of IAC/InterActiveCorp, has been aggressively advertising and marketing its search engine to pump up its brand among people.

Lanzone also said that for a long time the search market lacked a real competitor to Google, something which has recently changed, so Google may feel considerable more heat in coming years. He was referring to Ask.com's revamping of its search technology in recent years and to the relatively recent creation of search engines by both Yahoo and Microsoft.

Meanwhile, Berkowitz, who prior to his job at Microsoft was Ask.com's CEO, said the future doesn't lie in one-size-fits-all search engines. Instead, the key will be in giving users many options in how to search, and along those lines he predicts there will be a big evolution in user interfaces. That could hold Google back from evolving in this area, because its user interface is such a big part of its appeal, Berkowitz said.

At Microsoft, there is an opportunity to engage more fully the mass of users of its online services and have them spend more time in its network of Web sites and visit them more frequently, with search at the center of their experience, Berkowitz said. A fully-engaged community of users will in turn help Microsoft improve its search services, Berkowitz said.

Interestingly, Berkowitz said his teams don't meet with the teams developing Vista, the new version of Windows, to harmonize their approaches to search, a statement that took Battelle aback. "I don't even know what Vista is," Berkowitz said, adding that the online group's focus is on improving its engagement with its users every day.

Regarding Ask.com's advertising partnership with Google, Lanzone said that contract to carry Google search ads, signed in 2002, expires next year and, although the relationship has been very good, Ask.com will not automatically renew it, and will instead take a step back and evaluate extending it will be in its best interest.

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