Memo to Steve Ballmer: Just Ask Them!

Dina Bass from Bloomberg reports today that Steve Ballmer is talking smack about Google:

“Google does have to be all things to all people,” Ballmer said yesterday in an interview in New York. “Our search does not need to be all things to all people.”

That is an interesting take on the search market–an attempt to turn a bug (Microsoft’s 8% market share vs. Google’s 63%–at least in the United States) into a feature. Ballmer essentially claims that Google’s near-monopoly stifles its innovation.

I agree that Google hasn’t been particularly innovative when it comes to search interfaces, but I’m not persuaded by Ballmer’s hand-waving “innovator’s dilemma” reasoning. Besides, as Chris Lake at Econsultancy notes, “it’s hard to know exactly what Microsoft is trying to be, in terms of search.”

Lake goes on to make an excellent point:

Search has always been about intent. That’s essentially what a search query is: an indicator of intent. You want something, you need something, you mean to purchase something, you’re going to do something.

But most queries do not reveal the exact nature of intent.

And here is the money shot:

The search engines might be able to determine intent automatically… But for me nothing works as well as asking the question, and seeking out some explicit data. Ask the question!

Yes, it’s like Feynman said: you just ask them! So much effort in the search industy aims at coming up with more clever ways to divine the user’s intent automatically, and so little focuses on building better tools to work *with* the user. Yes, I’m just beating the HCIR drum again–it’s what I do here. 🙂

But I can’t let a moment like this pass without pointing it out. If Microsoft wants a serious shot at Google, it should invest less in bribing users and more in HCIR.

Sadly, as Silicon Alley Insider’s Eric Krangel learned from a discussion with Microsoft Search director Stefan Weitz, “Microsoft doesn’t want to scare off users by introducing any dramatic changes to what people expect from the search engine experience.” Or, as Krangel summarized it pithily, what we can expect are “tweaks.”

I understand that Microsoft can’t ignore the fact that users have been trained on Google. But Microsoft is in a market where it has little to lose and everything to gain. This is the time to be bold, not conservative. Moreover, some the best HCIR researchers are working for their own research division! Want to build a better search engine? Just ask them!

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

62 replies on “Memo to Steve Ballmer: Just Ask Them!”

Yes, MarkH, that’s funny. I agree that wouldn’t work.

But look at your serious response: “the one thing Google ‘do really, really well’ is provide a scalable computing platform for applications (be that search or mail or whatever).

Today, that is very true. I agree; that’s what they do well.

But when did it change? When did they lose focus on their main goal, which was search?

While you may want them to remain true to something else the reality is they have moved on in ways that are not easily reversed.

I want them to remain true to what they say is their main goal. Google’s mission statement does not say: “It is good to do one thing really well — scalable architecture”. No, it says search.

So they can do whatever they want. If they say search, then do search. If they are no longer doing search, but doing scalable architectures, then just change what their mission statement says. And do it publicly, visibly, and transparently. The same sort of transparency that Tim O’Reilly wants out of Government 2.0, I want out of Corporations 2.0.

Is it really so unreasonable for me to ask them to be honest and transparent about their mission statement? I thought Google was a different kind of company. A special one.



GoogleGuy Says: [Link to quote]
Google’s mission: to organize the world’s information, making it universally accessible and useful. Email == information. 🙂

Email == information? Oh, that is sooo rich. Guess what? Device drivers are also tools for information organization. So why doesn’t Google build a consumer-facing operating system, while they’re at it?

Computer science, by definition, is the study of the representation, transformation, and reuse of information. How broad do you want to go? At some point, as Google keeps reinterpreting its mission statement, it becomes so broad that it has no meaning and no value. Is that what the founders really intended?


“Dear Gmail users,
a small but militant band of campaigners for ‘real search’ have taken us to task over our mission statement.

You forget, MarkH, that when Google started, its founders were a small but militant band of campaigners for ‘real search’.




MarkH, how about this letter instead?

“Dear Gmail users,

A small but militant band of campaigners for ‘real search’ reminded us that we used to be a small but militant band of campaigners for ‘real search’. We realize that we have lost our way, loosened our focus, and generally halted all major search developments other than trying to decide whether the lines of a box should be 3 pts, 4 pts, or 5 pts wide.

Therefore, in order to return to our core competency and passion and a search company, we are suspending active development on Gmail, the same way we similar suspended development in Google Video a year or so ago. This will allow us to rededicate ourselves to the application that made us great in the first place.

Unfortunately, this re-dedication comes at a cost; we cannot do everything. As a result, we will slowly start to phase out the Gmail service. Your email will still be available via POP3 for another two years. And we will continue forwarding email sent to your Gmail account for the next 5 years. However, we will be dedicating our servers to improving search, not processing your email so that we can serve advertisements next to it.

Thanks for your understanding in this matter.”



I have to applaud your passion on this topic but email is searchable information and valuable searchable information at that. IMO comparing it to device driver’s information feeds is not valid. Email & communication streams in all forms contain more value than almost any other from of information, it’s truly general purpose where as information created and collected by OS level services while important to a few is not important to many.

Whether right or wrong it looks like Google is trying to organize the majority of personal information or information a person would like to have access too.

Now while staying away from advertising it’s obvious why they want to index as much personal information as possible – targeted advertising. 😉

I spend a lot of time working with communication data and my personal view is being able to search this stream is even more important than expanding the available public data. Don’t get me wrong I want to be able to access and navigate as much data as possible but in my day to day life it’s communication streams, domain specific documents (which often come with a domain specific index & ui) and finally more results in my general search.

For me improving general search still comes down to improving the HCIR. Everyone here knows I am a fan of what Endeca does in enterprise search and I want some one to do it for general search or even try something truly new none of us has thought of.

I think faceted, exploratory UIs are the next step in turning data into information. The engine does not have to read my mind, let me interact. I built a rudimentary version of this for email as an experiment and even in that area it seems to show marked improvement in accuracy and recall.


A final comment from me on general search and less than stellar recall.

What I have seen, I’ll call it 3 steps to happy:

General consumer does a search at Google, finds what they want = Happy.

General consumer does a search at Google, can’t find what they are looking for, reach out to a “computer literate” friend or family member = Happy.

General consumer does a search at Google, can’t find what they are looking for, reach out to a “computer literate” friend or family member, expert can’t find answer, writes a social message to their social graph, gets an answer, passes on to general consumer = Happy.

I have rarely got to the 3rd stage and not been able to get a result. In fact I don’t remember the last time I actually didn’t.


I fail to find things on Google a bit more frequently, but in most cases I don’t know if the information I’m looking for is even out there. My complaint about Google is not that it doesn’t help me establish confidence that my failed searches mean the information isn’t out there.


Definitely not a Google fan boy, there’s lots that’s wrong and I agree fully with this statement and it’s one of my pet peeves as well: “My complaint about Google is not that it doesn’t help me establish confidence that my failed searches mean the information isn’t out there.”

I have found using my 3 steps to happiness I tend to get a result whether directly or from a helpful 3rd party.


Christopher, Thank you for not mistaking my passion for belligerence 🙂 I tend to get a little fist-pounding at times, but rest assured it’s more bark than bite. This is all quite friendly discussion.

You say: “Don’t get me wrong I want to be able to access and navigate as much data as possible but in my day to day life it’s communication streams, domain specific documents (which often come with a domain specific index & ui) and finally more results in my general search.

I guess I don’t really share this same need. Most of the time, email that comes and goes just comes and goes. I really don’t need to search back over it. If there was an important link that came in via email, I will have already bookmarked it. If there was an address that I needed to write down, I will write it down.

If I ever do need to search for something in email, it’s not to find one, top-ranked message. It’s mostly to find and reconstruct a series of he said/she said exchanges, between and among multiple recipients, which sometimes have occurred over many weeks or months, in order to reconstruct the logical flow of some issue my team is dealing with. But then, that sort of information need is an exploratory, recall-oriented need, and is something that Google already sucks at anyway. So having Google/Gmail doesn’t really help me, because they don’t do that kind of search.

What I question about diving into email is the need or the efficacy of Google having to own not only the raw data, but also the UI, the servers, etc.

In short, if email really is so important for search, then Google should be integrating email searching features into Google Desktop so that it can search email already on your system. It should be working on tools to crawl Exchange databases, to parse old Eudora and Pine and Elm mailboxes, and (with your permission and password) crawl and index your Yahoo and Hotmail accounts. That way, and only that way, would email search truly be useful.. because Google would really be searching through whatever email tool I used.

Instead, they chose to develop a whole, hosted email service themselves. And while your data is not locked in, your ability to search that data is. In short, Google provides an inferior search solution, because it only has the ability to search your Google email. Gmail is wholly incapable of searching your old Pine and Eudora mailboxes. Which I’ve frankly got quite a few of.

Know what I’m saying?

And Daniel, that’s a great way to express it: Google gives you no way of establishing confidence that you’ve done a thorough and proper search, and the information simply isn’t there to be found. Apologies for promoting my own blog posts in your comments section — not something I want to make a regular habit — but I had a similar thought a few weeks ago and wrote about it:

Finally, Christopher, in response to your comment #60: Maybe for many of your information needs you find your answer via one of those three steps. But let’s take this back to your email example. What if you’re searching in your email, and can’t find it, but know that it has to exist? You try a few Google searches and they fail. Do you really then ask a computer expert / friend to search your email for you? And after that, do you really chat up someone on your social graph, to find those email(s)? It seems like email search is not something where you could ask the resident computer expert or your social network for help, right?


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