Checking Three Of Microsoft’s Vital Signs

This week’s column focuses on Microsoft and only Microsoft. You’ll find it all in the extended entry. This is one of those columns where the links may be more interesting than the content itself, whether it’s the patent discovery at Search Engine Land or the various startups mentioned.

My only real disappointment with the column is that Mark Simon wrote about Microsoft’s Medstory acquisition yesterday, though it did force me to keep that part of the column more concise.

Checking Three Of Microsoft’s Vital Signs
By David Berkowitz

IS IT POSSIBLE TO WRITE an entire
column on Microsoft and not mention its two fiercest rivals? With a health
search site acquisition, a puzzling patent application, and new video search
demos, Microsoft doesn’t need to stand in anyone else’s shadow.

Salud!

We’ll start with health search, which Mark Simon covered in yesterday’s column
in a shameless attempt to steal my thunder. It worked, but it’s a big enough
story that it’s worth at least a few more thoughts on the matter.

As a quick recap, Microsoft last week announced its acquisition of
Medstory, with employees of the startup joining Microsoft’s recently formed
Health Solutions Group — indicating that this is just a small sign of what’s
ahead. Why does Microsoft need it? Consider a search for "diabetes" at different
sites:

At search.live.com,
you get the normal MSN search results and ads, but above the ads on the right,
there are eight related search phrases to refine the results. The related
searches are nice, but you get those for any search; there aren’t specific
health search improvements.

Searching for "diabetes" at health.msn.com,
the results are a puzzling list ranked with star ratings. Some listings referred
to Microsoft’s DiabetesCenter, which has great content but isn’t available
directly from the search results. Here, the search functionality has been
neglected entirely.

Now, on to Medstory,
which ups the ante on refining results. Atop the natural search results (there
are currently no ads), there are 40 ways to refine results in eight categories.
Clicking "view more" shows 200 refinement suggestions. Medstory’s acquisition
will bring more attention to some other players, such as Healthline with its
doctor-reviewed results and Symptom
Search
, and Kosmix with an entire portal
that comes up for the "diabetes" search (another startup was featured in an October column).

What If?

What if running a paid search campaign triggered a change in your
natural search rankings? In one example, the search engine could detect a more
relevant URL in your paid search ad than your natural listing and automatically
swap the natural listing’s URL with the paid one. In another example, the
natural listing could disappear entirely if the ad is deemed more relevant.

Who could imagine doing such a thing? Microsoft, according to a
recent patent filing unearthed by Search Engine
Land’s Bill Slawski
. The patent, "Systems and Methods for Removing Duplicate
Search Engine Results," offers dozens of variations of these scenarios, so
Microsoft is covering all bases. Yet it’s hard to imagine any of these instances
benefiting anyone listed in Microsoft’s paid or natural results.

Marketers often find higher click-through and conversion rates
when they have a presence in both the natural and paid results. More
importantly, the two are often used for different purposes. With high rankings
in natural results, marketers can expect more traffic and can sometimes claim
multiple spots in the first page of rankings. With paid search, marketers have
complete control over the ad, including the messaging and landing page. These
links are not meant to be interchangeable.

Just because Microsoft has a patent (which was first filed in
March 2003) doesn’t mean it will ever use it, and it’s possible one or two of
the 40 claims could have a positive effect for marketers. There’s nothing wrong
with hoarding intellectual property. Here’s one case where the "if you’ve got
it, flaunt it" maxim shouldn’t be followed.

What Clicks

Microsoft recently retooled its adCenter Labs, with six
services labeled new and seven coming soon. It also has a new section, Emerging
Media, that focuses on video. The first feature, Video Hyperlink, offers a demo
similar to something I’ve seen Microsoft tinker with since 2005, if not earlier,
where you can click the clothing worn by people in a video and get more
information about it or buy it. This video hotspotting is fun to play with, and
it’s smart for Microsoft to show its movement in that direction. A number of
startups, meanwhile, have also developed their own hotspotting technologies;
expect to see Avant Interactive and Compulsion
featured in this column before long.

The other Emerging Media feature shows how you can add comments
that overlay on videos so that others can search the video by keywords or tags.
It didn’t run perfectly on my computer, even when using Internet Explorer, but
it’s another flashing beacon that Microsoft aims to tackle some of the current
issues with indexing and searching videos.

Clean Bill of Health

Taken together, these are three very different moves from
Microsoft, and they’re not the only recent ones worth noticing. Given its recent
developments with health search — the one form of vertical search that can be a
matter of life or death for consumers — and video search — the field of search
that should rack up Most Improved awards this year — Microsoft is aiming to
stake leadership ground in the most important (and potentially most lucrative)
search fields. With any luck, it’ll be too busy to follow through on old patent
filings.