When asked to identify the pros and cons of telecommuting, for example, one searcher searched for “telecommuting,” while others queried “working at home cost benefit” and “economic comparison telecommuting versus office.” Knowing that these people have a shared interest could mean better results, Teevan says. “I don’t talk about things the same way that you talk about things,” she says. “And by using those different ways, [Microsoft is] more likely to find a page where someone talks about something in their own way.”
Even if tapping into social groups improves search results, Microsoft will have to significantly improve its search service or introduce major new features to win over Google’s loyal followers, says Andrew Frank, research vice president with business-intelligence firm Gartner’s media group. “I think that the search category has been so successful for Google, and their dominance is so extreme, that it is hard to imagine a specific tactic that could be a silver bullet to change the trajectory of things,” he says. “It will take a lot of effort and a lot of different things to change the overall picture of search.”
Efforts to compare the quality of search results from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have found that about half of people still prefer Google–a smaller number than Google’s actual market share. The difference is the attraction of Google’s brand, Frank says. “You have to kind of change the game with search,” he says. “It is almost impossible to get people to switch on a large scale just on a feature-function comparison.”
In 2008, Google kicked off an experiment in which it allowed users to change the look of their search results, mapping them or placing them on a timeline. Early this year, the company added ability function that lets users reorder their search results through a service called SearchWiki. Yahoo has expanded its research-and-development efforts to try to match its rival’s efforts.
Microsoft’s Teevan believes, however, that there’s still plenty of room for improvement. “Search is a really huge activity on the Web, but right now, we only have a single search tool–the search box–and a list of results,” she says. “Groups can teach us a lot.”