No secret search engine says Microsoft

We're just innovating the current one, says search and advertising head

Speculation that Microsoft has a crack team of developers in Silicon Valley working on a cutting-edge search project is news to the company’s head of search and advertising.

“When they get it done, I hope they’ll send me a link to it so I’ll know about it,” Satya Nadella, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s search and advertising platform group, jokingly said at the Search Marketing Expo, held recently in Seattle.

He was responding to a question about a rumour making the rounds online that a team of engineers at Microsoft’s Mountain View office is working on a new search engine to replace its existing one.

While Nadella denied any specific effort to build a new search engine, he did say that his group, as a very young search operation, would need to take risks in order to improve its position. Microsoft search is just over three years old and has about 10% of the market, he said, noting “We’ll experiment”.

One way that Microsoft may work to improve its search ranking is by trying to leverage its position as a content provider. The MSN portal has around 500 million unique users globally, Nadella said. His group is trying to find ways to encourage them to use Microsoft’s Live search. The MSN A-List is an example of that effort. The A-List is a page that shows top searches on Live search. In addition, the main page only recently got a Live search bar.

Microsoft will also have to differentiate its search product from the others to get ahead, he said. Offerings such as 3D maps, where he thinks Microsoft is in the lead, as well as mobile and image search could help the company gain new users.

Longer term, Nadella wants to experiment with and “reconceptualise” the search user interface. There’s a “ton” of innovation that can be done on the user experience side, he said at the Expo.

In addition to innovating on new products, Nadella’s group will get more scientific in researching how customers use Live search. “The crux of our problem is how do we get existing searchers to use it more,” he said. To figure out how to do that, he wants to have more data about things like abandonment rates.

Microsoft has an uphill battle to fight as it competes against the current search leaders. Microsoft's Live search lags far behind Google, which has about half of the search market share. Yahoo, the second largest search provider, had nearly 27% share in April, according to ComScore Networks.

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