Is Microsoft Live Search Headed for ‘Kiev?’

Microsoft says that its search experience has greatly improved over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, it’s hard for users to tell. That’s why the company has decided to go to ‘Kiev,’ according to one Microsoft executive.

That’s the codename for Microsoft’s total search strategy overhaul, which the company plans to unveil in the next several months.

The remake and rebranding initiative came to light in a discussion the executive in charge of Microsoft’s consumer search properties had with the Wall Street Journal this week.

Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president of Microsoft’s (NASDAQ: MSFT) online audience business group, says part of the problem is one of branding. For instance, he told the Journal that in “blind taste tests,” when Microsoft takes its own search results and presents them with a Google logo, users consistently rated them highest.

“Just by putting the name up, people think it’s more relevant,” the Journal quotes Mehdi as saying. A Microsoft spokesperson confirmed Mehdi’s statements to the Journal.

Mehdi said that part of the reason why users have a hard time telling the difference in the quality of search results from Microsoft’s search technology today is that the company has improved the quality of its search engine over the past year or two.

The company has been referring to the unreleased, updated search engine for the past several months by the codename “Kumo,” which reportedly means both ‘cloud’ and ‘spider’ in Japanese. However, Microsoft has not said yet whether it will use the codename as the final name or not.

Microsoft began internally testing Kumo in early March. The company has yet to make much information about either Kumo or Kiev public, however.

Still struggling

Despite all the hard work, however, Microsoft’s Live Search and MSN Search continue to struggle to distinguish themselves against daunting competition from Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO).

For example, tracking firm Net Applications finds that Google currently controls 81.4 percent of searchers worldwide, compared to just 5 percent for Live Search and MSN Search combined. Yahoo, meanwhile, holds double Microsoft’s market share with 9.9 percent.

“I think the branding [concept] is important and has been one of their biggest problems, plus they’ve never really advertised it [search],” Matt Rosoff, a lead analyst at Directions on Microsoft, told

Microsoft is rumored to be readying a $100 million ad campaign to promote Kiev. Given that it spent a reported $300 million promoting Windows Vista, however, that may not do the job.

“[Even] with the redesign, it’s hard to know if it will get people away from Google because of habits,” Rosoff added.

According to the Journal report, Mehdi demonstrated searching using Kumo. The search engine returned results grouped by logical groupings. For example, a search on a musician’s name grouped results in categories such as songs, lyrics, videos, and images.

Microsoft has been working on its search technology feverishly since this time last year, when its hostile takeover bid for Yahoo disintegrated, to improve both its search properties as well as its name recognition, apparently with mixed results.

CEO Steve Ballmer and other senior executives continue to proclaim interest in working out some kind of search deal with Yahoo, although such a deal has not emerged under Yahoo’s new CEO Carol Bartz so far.

Microsoft keeps trying

Last May, Microsoft introduced a program, dubbed Live Search cashback, to pay rewards to consumers who use its Live Search engine to find and purchase products online.

In another example, in November, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems announced a deal whereby its MSN Toolbar, which includes a link to Live Search, became a free option for Java users.

The company has struck other similar deals, but none has given it much of a leg up on the competition – at least not yet. Microsoft executives, particularly Ballmer, have also said repeatedly that they will continue to spend heavily on search – even as the company experiences the first major layoffs in its history.

In fact, Microsoft just announced a new capability it calls Live Search Active Answers, which initially will provide a quick lookup capability for tracking airline flight status.

Nor has Microsoft shied away from luring key technologists and leaders from competitors. For instance, in December, Qi Lu, Yahoo’s executive vice president of engineering for search and advertising technologies, jumped ship to become president of Microsoft’s online services group.

Whether any of this will work, of course, is still unknown.

“It is possible to do more innovation [in search] but I just can’t tell if what Microsoft is doing will do the trick,” Rosoff added.

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