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November 1st, 2007:

Microsoft: Clueless or Actively Hostile to Search?

I know that large enterprises have traditionally taken a lot longer to get clues, both generally, and specifically around search. To some extent, this is just a factor of organizational size: Voyager‘s awesomely successful enterprise search marketing company, SEMDirector, is helping enterprises learn to adapt to this brave new world, and creating a lot of value doing it.

Of all big enterprises, Microsoft is one that we’d expect to be relatively early on the search bandwagon. After all, they’ve largely reoriented the company around search and advertising.

But inexplicably, the very best assets that Microsoft has from a search-marketing content perspective — the gigs and gigs of support info and (heh) bug workarounds on their massive, persistent, ubiquitous installed base — are piss-poorly optimized for search!

Sometime, try searching for something like, oh, say:

exchange server pop mail marked as read  

…which you might do if, like me, you’re frustrated that MSFT’s latest version of Exchange server can’t seem to support POP3 access without flagging all the POP’ed messaged as read (thereby screwing up the flawed but de facto organizational method that Outlook has trained us all to use over the years). (Yes, it’s a real problem; no, I haven’t found a solution.)

Well, the first several hits are forums, blogs, and ISV’s offering solutions. Somewhere around 9th place comes a hit from Microsoft, though, and you’re thinking: “Great! these forum postings are people complaining, but the solution will just be right here in the handy Microsoft link! Boy, what smart guys they are!” So you click on Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 Solution Center

…and what you get back is a huge page full of what I can only describe as “useless crap”. Twenty or thirty topics, all loosely grouped around a product, but nothing apparently on my problem. A confusing mess of acronyms and key terms.

Sigh. OK, So then you pull out the backup. Use your browser’s in-page-search (cmd-f) to find “POP.” Surely, one of these thirty topics is about what I want, I just need to find it here. (Though, isn’t that what the search engine was supposed to have done? Whatever.)

Search: “POP.” A few instances, but nothing relevant. OK, Search: “marked as read.” One instance, but describes the opposite of my problem. How about “marked as unread.” Also irrelevant.

Now you sit back and scratch your head: Every single other link in Google, prior to the Microsoft link, was relevant (if not useful) to my particular problem and my carefully worded query. Now comes the link from the very author of my misery, the Leviathan, and NOT A SINGLE G.D. SENTENCE is relevant to my problem!!

And that’s when it hit me: Microsoft’s “support” pages are actually search engine spam.

(And Google has properly detected this: that’s why for Microsoft’s own product, and despite Microsoft’s huge “Google Juice,” its own support pages rank a pitiful 9th.)

The answer to what needs to be done is fairly simple. (Our friends at SEMDirector could walk you through it.) Push the search engine juice out to the edges of the graph (leaf nodes with real info, rather than these pseudo-indices which serve only to conflate keywords together that don’t belong on the same page); let real human end-users discuss topics, using words that come naturally to them (and hence to other help-seekers); engage external bloggers and forums both to push info out into the ecosystem and to get deep links back in to the leaf nodes.

(Back in 2004, I was seeing this kind of search-friendly behavior on HP’s server support forums, and it was AWESOME. But then, that was all about running Linux on a well-engineered, open platform.)

All of the above recommendations are anti-hierarchical, control-ceding, conversation-seeding moves. They require a mental move from hold on tightly to let go lightly. I’m talking about not just opening the kimono, but playing volleyball on the nude beach. Do you think that a company unable to do that with its support pages is going to be able to embrace a whole new and orthogonal, search-and-ads based strategy?