No kudos yet for Microsoft's Kumo

The word which perhaps best characterizes the screenshots, leaked today to The Wall Street Journal's Kara Swisher, of Microsoft's internal tests of a search service tentatively entitled "Kumo," is unremarkable. They show a remade version of Windows Live Search with a few new innovations -- new for Microsoft, that is -- but at least based on these samples alone, not enough to clearly demonstrate why anyone should use Kumo instead of Google or Yahoo.

The screenshots display search results for three typical types of popular searches. These results are displayed on a page with a categorical navigation bar along the left side, offering ways in which the service can display different types of results (in Windows Live Search, these categories might appear in a line along the top marked See also). Unlike in, however, results can appear automatically grouped into Yellow Pages-like categories; for example, a search for "Audi S8" returned a list which was subcategorized into "Parts," "Accessories," "Forum," and other groupings with related terms.

That's not a bad feature, but it's also not new. Vivismo has been demonstrating something like it (and AOL from time to time has been funding it) since 2004. If Microsoft is to make some headway in search against both Google and a potentially revived Yahoo, then it needs a value proposition that's more appealing to users than, "It's more like Google!" Or at least that's what you might think.

"If Microsoft wants to even become relevant in search, let alone dominant, it needs a revolution and not an evolution," contributing independent analyst Carmi Levy told Betanews this afternoon.

"Merely matching Google's feature set and capability establishes the former software innovator as an also-ran in the Internet services age," stated Levy. "Microsoft needs to swing for the fences if it hopes to make up for the inevitable fade of its cash cow operating system and productivity software franchises. Only a complete paradigm shift in search will convince users to give up their Google habit en masse and switch to Microsoft. Given the Redmond vendor's 'doddering old uncle' reputation in Internet-based services, that's unlikely to happen unless we see some sparkling innovation from Microsoft's R&D labs, and soon. History, unfortunately, works against Microsoft here, as nothing short of a complete organizational reinvention will give it the agility it needs to go toe-to-toe with Internet-heritage plays like Google."

Last August, when ZDNet friend and colleague Mary Jo Foley broke the news that Microsoft had registered a few semi-words, including "Kumo," with IP addresses that pointed toward Windows Live Search, the early speculation was that Kumo could be a replacement brand for Live Search. But the early screenshots revealed this morning show both MSN and Windows Live are available links along the upper toolbar. This suggests that Kumo may be revealed as a separate service from Microsoft's existing brands -- an indication that the company isn't willing yet to part with at least one of its underperforming domains.

So why "Kumo?" "Microsoft needs to get real with its online branding strategy," noted Carmi Levy, "and it has to start with a wholesale consolidation of what it's already got. The company's Internet services history is best described as an often-interrupted hopscotch game of half-marketed, partially abandoned brands whose continued existence sows long-term confusion among potential users. If Microsoft can't get its e-mail and instant messaging services cohesively branded (Is it still Hotmail? Or MSN? Or Windows Live? Or Office Live? Or MSN Office Live?) then how can it instill trust that it's got the services themselves right?

"It may seem like a trivial issue to bring up, but it isn't when examining the decision process that guides a user toward one online service over another. It's about trust. And something as seemingly benign as name brand confusion is often more than enough to keep regular Google users from straying. For all of its online properties, Google has done a better job keeping them all under the same branding umbrella. Microsoft's non-strategy needs help soon. The company can start by killing one or all of its existing sub-brands and tossing its go-forward projects under a consistent banner."

Part of what has instilled trust among Google's users over the past half-decade has been the quality of its search results. Despite the fact that Google can, and does, dig up insufficient results for about 80% of what it turns up, the remaining 20% is typically dead on, and it usually appears in page 1 of the results. It's almost a Microsoft formula: Google does its job good enough to pass, and strong enough to avoid being ignored.

So it may therefore follow that any Google competitor has to demonstrate far more efficiency than Google in order to be competitive -- and certainly, these screenshots cannot possibly demonstrate whether Kumo achieves this. If it's only using the Live Search engine, it won't be quite enough.

"Google dominates the end-user mindset because there is a broadly held perception that it returns the most trustworthy results. Users believe, for better or for worse, that a search in Google is more likely to return relevant, usable results -- or, more importantly, the definitive result that will answer the user's original question [better] than any other search engine," Levy remarked. "That Google's results page is largely the same as it's been for the last decade is virtually immaterial to Google -- it's the core results, that deep sense of trust placed in Google by its users, that matters most. Packaging the results in a more user-friendly manner is almost a wasted exercise if the search results themselves are not thorough and trusted.

"In technology as in life, you either go big or you go home. While Microsoft deserves a certain amount of praise for not simply walking away from the search arena, you have to wonder whether the world wants or needs another me-too approach to search. In short, it doesn't."

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