With Microsoft reportedly poised to introduce its new search engine, code-named "Kumo" next week, a question arises: "Why does Microsoft do what everyone else does?"
Since screenshots of Kumo leaked out in March, both Google and Yahoo have shown similar new functionality coming to their search engines. Meanwhile, Wolfram Alpha, described as a "computational knowledge engine," highlights how improving search may require something beyond a search engine.
With by some estimates a 73 percent share of search traffic, Google is driving the industry. Yahoo is still a player, but Microsoft as always been an also-ran and not a very successful one at that.
The revenue generated by search engines is too large for Microsoft to ignore, but what's been leaked about Kumo suggests Microsoft's game of catch-up will already have been leapfrogged by competitors when Kumo goes live, reportedly on June 3.
Simply put: With three large companies in the game, anything one can do is easily copied by the others. Users search habits are hard to change, allowing time for catch-up and making it difficult to convince users to switch or even to start using a second search engine to improve results.
Kumo reportedly improves search results by suggesting more targeted searches capable of bringing users closer to the information they seek. Yahoo and Google have both recently demonstrated similar functionality.
Improving the overall search experience is difficult, as the recently introduced Wolfram Alpha demonstrates. Pointedly not a "search engine," WA helps users find--well, describing what WA is really good for proves elusive, especially with the service still newly introduced.
My bet is that while WA is likely to be useful for finding isolated facts and figures, and even putting them to use, it will be a long time before large numbers of users come to Wolfram Alpha on a regular basis.
Perhaps, WA will find a better way to present its capabilities so potential users will think to use it appropriately rather than be turned off when the service doesn't work as they expect. Regardless, WA demonstrates that making big improvement in searching is very difficult and would be fraught with risk for the three leaders.
But, if Microsoft ever expects to really compete, it needs to find a way to dramatically improve the quality of search results it delivers to users, giving its search engine the sort of word-of-mouth that propelled Google into orbit.
It isn't possible to say Kumo can't do that, but given the speed of imitation in the search business, it doesn't appear likely.