Google pre-empted Microsoft’s plans for a significant relaunch of its internet search service as it revealed on Tuesday changes to its own search results pages that echo some of the moves planned by its arch-rival.
The latest refinements by Google show how difficult it will be for Microsoft to create any significant differentiation for its search service, which still lags well behind Google and Yahoo five years after it was first launched, according to analysts.
In a direct echo of Microsoft’s plans, Google said it would give greater prominence to the “related links” section on its search results pages.
This lists suggestions designed to narrow down a search query, for instance offering “quantum mechanics physics” and “big bang physics” in response to a search on “principles of physics”.
Google also said it would show longer “snippets” of text in search results returned for longer queries to help readers decide if they want to click through to another web page.
Microsoft had hoped to use features like “related links”, along with other refinements, to win over some of Google’s users as part of a forthcoming relaunch of its own search service.
Much of its focus has been on making it easier for internet users to find their way through to the most relevant results. It also plans to rebrand the service to give it a stronger identity.
However, similar efforts by other search engines in the past to differentiate their search results pages have failed to give them any noticeable edge.
“Ask.com had [related links] a while ago and saw them as a key differentiator but they didn’t do anything for Ask,” said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land. “It’s still going to be difficult for Microsoft to change that Google habit.”
Steve Ballmer, Microsoft chief executive, said last week that his company had more room to experiment than Google, which is prevented by its big audience share from making any radical changes.
However, general familiarity with the existing design of internet search services will make it hard to win users over to genuinely new approaches.
“It’s almost like an operating system – it’s what they’re used to,” said Mr Sullivan.
After failing in its effort to buy Yahoo last year, Microsoft has warned that any headway against Google in the search market is likely to take years and will involve advances on a number of fronts, including the quality of the service and new distribution partnerships.
In one of the most promising developments, the software company has reached deals with Hewlett-Packard and Dell, the world’s biggest PC makers, to have its search software included on new PCs, displacing similar agreements those companies had before with Yahoo and Google.