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Welcome to Microsoft Pri0: That's Microspeak for top priority, and that's the news and observations you'll find here from Seattle Times reporter Sharon Chan.

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July 30, 2008 3:54 PM

Ballmer foreshadowed new look for Live Search

Posted by Benjamin J. Romano

Today, Microsoft began rolling out a new look for its Live Search start page. The company is going away from the spartan search box on a mostly empty white page -- the design most-closely associated with Google's world-beating search engine -- in favor of a look that leaves room for it to highlight various features of its search and online services offerings. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said last week that he was no fan of the blank start page.

Ballmer was asked a relatively friendly question, by an analyst who didn't give his name, at the very end of the company's Financial Analyst Meeting last week: "One of the advantages that Google seems to have is its one face, its one brand. And at Microsoft you have three or four Internet brands, and portals. How much of a priority is it for you to integrate those, so you have one common brand, and one common interface that takes advantage of all your capabilities, so that the world can see that you have better tools than they do, and you can finally win?"

Ballmer's response, in part (emphasis added):

"The real question ... in my opinion, is not a brand question. The real question is, when you type, that's not a brand that's a logical statement, what does that page look like, and what's the appropriate brand?

"I don't think it's going to be a blank page. I don't think that makes sense, not for us, and from where we come from. I think given the monetization model it's got to prominently feature search, but at the same time it should have a range of content that is tailored, and directed at you. I think we do need whatever that page is called, we do need an identity to talk about our search, and yet when you go, it's still not clear to me that you want to get a blank page."

The redesigned Live Search definitely keeps search front and center. But instead of the blank background -- one observer actually termed it "less than awe-inspiring blue-gray" -- Microsoft has placed a picture, which will change periodically. This afternoon, I was getting a picture of a man in a dugout canoe in what looks like a wetlands. The image behaves kind of like an advent calendar, with a couple of squares that "gleam" when the page is first loaded. Hover the mouse over one of the squares -- Microsoft is calling them "hotspots" -- and up pops a text box asking, "What will you see on your safari in Botswana?" Click on it, and it launches a search for videos of animals in Botswana.

"We think hotspots will help users discover parts of Live Search they might not know while not distracting from the core purpose of the page -- searching," write Chris Rayner and Zach Gutt, managers of the Live Search User Experience team, in a blog post explaining the changes.

That speaks to the broader challenge they are facing. Microsoft's search team believes its service is competitive with Google's on features and relevancy, but people don't know that because Live Search is not widely used. Its U.S. market share is around 10 percent compared with more than 60 percent for Google.

Microsoft has explored several ways to expand awareness of its search engine and its features this year. This particular change was tested last month, according to the blog post. It's being rolled out in the U.S., with other markets planned for some time in the future.

Kip Kniskern, a contributor to the Microsoft-tracking, spotted the test last month. He called it "a nice surprise."

"This would seem to open up a number of opportunities for special occasions, personalization, and or promotions, as well as just brightening up my day a bit. Maybe all the cold gray weather here in the Pacific Northwest prompted the Live Search team to remind us that the sun does indeed shine somewhere in the world. ...

"Of course this isn't going to have anything to do with market share, or stock prices, or buying or not buying Yahoo, but truthfully, it looks great."

Incidentally, Ballmer noted that work on squaring away Microsoft's online brand was put on "short-term hold" during the course of the Yahoo offer.

"[T]he way we would have approached that problem would be quite a bit different if we had purchased Yahoo," Ballmer said.

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