Thursday, December 11, 2008

Search Anonymization: More Hot Air from Microsoft

Microsoft announced recently that it is willing to abide by European guidelines that say search engines shouldn't keep personally identifiable search data beyond six months -- as long as other search engines like Google play along too. The announcement got a lot of press, but what's the real news here? Microsoft isn't going to do anything, unless everybody else does. As with a lot of things Microsoft, especially when it comes to the search realm, the news is more marketing hot air than tangible reality.

As it stands today, Microsoft keeps sensitive search data for 18 months, twice as long as Google currently does (although Google's new 9-month rule is also a bit slippery in terms of the actual anonymity it provides). Why didn't Microsoft just agree to meet Google at 9 months, or even to meet Yahoo's 13-month limit, and then have everyone work together to get to the European's stated goal of 6 months? Because it can't. It's still a distant third in the search engine wars, even in Europe, and it can't afford to concede anything that may further erode its position. Although it currently keeps personally identifiable data twice as long as Google, it hasn't been able to leverage that fact to improve its search algorithm and make a stronger run at search leadership. It can hardly retain less data and hope for a better result.

Microsoft has made some smart moves when it comes to search, the most recent of which was last week's hiring of Yahoo search guru Qi Lu to run its Online Services Group. But it's all probably a bit too little, too late.

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