Saturday, May 24

Microsoft kills books search engine because books aren't fun

Microsoft has announced that it is shutting down Live Search Books and Live Search Academic, two search engines that aimed to index scholarly works that are often difficult to find online. The company is also ceasing its ambitious effort to digitize library books, a project that it had long promoted as an alternative to Google's own such efforts.

The company says it "recognizes" that closing these services will "come as disappointing news" to publishers and Web searchers. And yet Microsoft says it must shut them down anyway, because letting people search through books and academic journals no longer fits into the company's business strategy.

What's that new strategy? Microsoft wants to help people who have "high commercial intent."

I am not making that up. Satya Nadella, the company's vice president for search, actually uses those words. Microsoft would simply prefer to build search engine just for people looking to buy stuff.

Indeed, if you're buying stuff, Microsoft really wants to be your online friend. At Live Search cashback, the new search engine it unveiled this week, Microsoft even gives you cash for using its product. Why? Because you're giving away your money! And advertisers just love that!

On the other hand, if you are, inexplicably and ungratefully, simply looking for information, Microsoft wants no part of that. Why don't you go to Google or some kind of soup kitchen, you no-good freeloader?

This is heroically stupid. Seriously, is it any wonder that this company -- this company which has, for a decade now, flailed about in all its efforts online -- has found itself so outgunned by that Ph.D.-machine over in Mountain View?

I praised Live Search cashback as a brilliant effort born out of desperation, but make no mistake about the source of that desperation: Microsoft is giving people money to use its site because it has failed to get people interested in the vast majority of its online products.

So why is this? Why does MS have to pay people to search there? Why do we go to Google, for free, instead?

Of course, because early on, Google worked better. But why do we stick to Google? No small part of it is the company's brand, which is built upon the company's stated mission, "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

To be sure, Google wants to make money, and it, like Microsoft, has been fantastically successful at that. But on many of its products, Google makes no money at all.

It sees no cash in scanning library books or searching scholarly journals. Indeed, it's had to spend money: Both to digitize the books and to defend a lawsuit by authors and publishers who object to its methods. (Microsoft had long promised authors that its books effort was better for them; guess not, eh?)

But Google derives enormous indirect benefits from these non-commercial projects. College students, for instance, spend endless hours on Google's Web search engine, as well as on Google Scholar and Google Books, as part of the research. Where do you suppose the students will be inclined to go, later on, when they're looking for sunglasses?

Google's willingness to spend on not-in-it-for-the-money projects also surely helps it recruit the best minds in tech. I've spoken to Googlers who joined the firm primarily because they believed in its mission.

If you were a young tech engineer and had to choose between signing up with one firm that wanted to set free all the world's information and another that wanted to focus on customers with "high commercial intent," which would you pick, all else being equal?

Yeah, you'd choose the one with a brighter future. These days, it's pretty clear which one that is.