This year, a new face came to the China Internet Conference to represent Microsoft –Dr. Yongdong Wang, who was officially made General Manager of Microsoft Search Technology Center Asia on August 10. On the second day of the China Internet Conference he sat down with me to describe the future of search engines. A smile was on his face throughout the one-hour interview, which brought an amicable quality to the tech-intensive researcher and subject matter.
Wang boasts a stellar resume that indicates rich experience with leading search engine companies, Inktomi and Yahoo. Promoted to Vice President at Yahoo in 2007, responsible for the development of international search products, Wang was among a very small number of high-ranking Chinese technology executives working at a giant Internet company. Microsoft, which has big aspirations in the search business, naturally expects much from Wang’s service.
"The search business itself has been in development. Microsoft's Bing Search was a daring initiative as we always attempt to try something new, hoping to bring never-before experiences to our users, rather than just being a copycat," Wang said. Microsoft is not satisfied with providing simple search services. In Wang’s mind, Bing Search has an innovative role to play as a decision-making engine.
Microsoft's search engine research never stops - from MSN to Windows Live, Live Search, and Bing (“Bi Ying,” or “certain to respond,” in Chinese). Until June, or shortly before the release of Bing, Microsoft’s performance in the search business had been mediocre, with its market share dropping to a single-digit percentage behind Google, Yahoo and other competing Internet companies. Would the introduction of Bing Search be a turning point for Microsoft?
"Search engines usually receive a noticeable amount of tryouts at the beginning, but their traffic starts to decline shortly afterwards. Bing, however, has been a different story," said Greg Sterling, founding principal of market analysis company Sterling Market Intelligence. In the week of Bing’s release, Microsoft's share price rose again and has seen a 14 percent increase so far this year. Market response to Bing has surely outperformed that of any previous search engine launched by Microsoft.
According to a Microsoft user survey, 66 percent of search users would like their search engines to help them make decisions, but available services seem merely able to figure out lists of search hits not well positioned to meet customer needs. Microsoft wanted to seize this opportunity and help users make decisions.
"Bing makes search engines more convenient, especially for complicated needs where users desire help to make decisions," Wang said. He believes that "decision-making" would be a killer feature for Bing in the competition against other search engines. "Bing tries to better understand its users’ intention, and presents search results in a more organized manner with an emphasis on structured data, which provides users with information necessary for decision-making."
For example, Bing simplifies search steps by visualizing search results so that users may directly click on desired pictures. Bing also classifies search results. Given the keyword “BMW,” Bing displays category choices such as “Used Car,” “Spare Car Parts” or “BMW Discussion Group” in the upper-left corner of the screen.
"I believe Microsoft has been a pioneer in its research on Web-based search, but we need a more efficient process for development projects so that innovations can be more quickly incorporated in our products, online products in particular," said Wei-Ying Ma, Assistant Managing Director of Microsoft Research Asia.
Microsoft Search Technology Center Asia is a strategic foothold for the company’s future development in the search business. Jointly established in October 2005 by Microsoft Research Asia and Microsoft Bing (formerly Microsoft Live Search), this center located in Beijing was Microsoft’s first technology center overseas focusing on Internet search. As the General Manager, Yongdong Wang directly reports to Harry Shum, corporate vice president responsible for search product development at Microsoft.
"Our center has two primary tasks. On the one hand, as we are in Asia, our responsibility is to offer the best search experience to Asian users. On the other hand, we are a part of Microsoft’s global search team, so our goal is also to make a contribution to global search and embed the talent, innovation and wisdom that we have in Beijing into Bing’s global products," said Wang. "Another major advantage of working in Beijing lies in our close cooperation with Microsoft Research Asia."
Whenever a researcher at Microsoft Research Asia gets a brilliant idea, he or she can immediately work out a prototype for further discussion with staff at Microsoft Search Technology Center Asia, so that these ideas can be applied to actual products in a faster and better way. People at Microsoft Search Technology Center Asia, for their part, do not hesitate to communicate with their counterparts at Microsoft Research Asia whenever they encounter problems worth looking into in product development missions, so as to further shorten the product updating cycle.
"All research efforts would be over today if users could access any information they want with existing search services. But as this is still not the case, the campaign goes on," Shum said. "I personally believe that the next must-win battle will be over user experience. Many -- including myself -- agree that the White Box search interface is already out of date."
Indeed, Microsoft has already begun working on improving user experience. The first change has been to Bing’s homepage layout, which presents different background images to users in different countries, and is capable of changing images to match significant local events or holidays. If you move your cursor over a video icon, it will automatically play highlights from the video. An observant user will also discover that by moving his or her mouse to the right-hand side of any link in the list of search hits a box that displays the key ideas of the link’s content will pop up, with information far richer than just an ordinary summary. In this way, the search engine actually makes decisions for its users. As for queries about weather information or travel routes, the search engine will provide the information directly at the top of the page. Many of these latest technological achievements originated from the Microsoft Research Technology Center Asia.
Bing is called “Bi Ying” in Chinese, which literally means “certain to respond, ready to answer.” It has taken substantial effort for Bi Ying to live up to its idealistic name. To enable faster user acceptance around the world, Microsoft once again extended an olive branch to Yahoo, which, led by Carol Bartz, finally accepted this offer.
According to their agreement, Yahoo and Microsoft will share the revenue from search-based advertisements on both of their websites. Yahoo will retain 88 percent of the revenue from search-based advertisements on its own website during the first five years of cooperation and is authorized to sell the rights to sell search-based advertisements for some of Microsoft's websites. In return, Yahoo will switch its search engine to the Bing platform, and "Powered by Bing Technology" will appear on Yahoo pages. Microsoft will also have access to a wealth of information with long-term value – data about Internet users’ search and on-line consumption behavior, which is expected to help Microsoft fine-tune its advertising technology for further improvements to its user experience.
The most advanced technology does not necessarily lead to the largest share of the market; history proves that business model, user experience, and product services are high-value chips in the game of search. This was the very motive behind Microsoft's decision to set up the Microsoft Search Technology Center Asia, which has managed to build a staff 200-strong in four years. Ongoing projects there cover webpage search in Chinese and Japanese, video search, mobile search, news search, map search, and the development of the Microsoft global search platform. It is now Microsoft’s largest overseas research team in the search business.
The Internet is never lacking in innovative technologies and business miracles. Wang has his own view on the direction of future development in search engines: "Firstly, we need to know what users want through understanding their intentions; secondly, we should be able to thoroughly cover and understand the existing information on the Internet to analyze web pages; thirdly, we need a particularly strong matching function that presents only the best results to our users." As for the future of the search-based business model, Microsoft is still thinking, but its cooperation with Yahoo could be the starting point of Microsoft's next round of business innovation.