Suggestions for Microsoft – Engage the Developer Community better


Image of an engagement ring - lame I know - sorry, it was the best thing I could think of to evoke the need for better relationships with developers. Relationships are nothing if you never connect...This was originally titled: “Frustrations with Microsoft – Part II” and is a follow on from my post in January. But I decided to change the title so that it comes across more positive. I don’t actually like complaining (seriously!) and my real aim is to provide constructive thought, so tweaking the words a bit will hopefully help.

That said however, I do see a problem with how Microsoft engages with the wider developer community, both here in Australia and globally. I’ve been chatting through these ideas with a few people over the last months, and whilst I get some occasional nods of agreement, I realise for the most part I’m on my own. But I’ll put it out here anyway. Let me know your thoughts…

It’s about discoverability

The issue as I see it is that Microsoft still hasn’t worked out how to engage with the wider developer community. I’m sure they know this is a problem, but I don’t see much initiative from them in solving it.

Here’s the reality: You reach developers via a Google search result.

That is, the majority of developer engagement is via a useful search result link.

And thus, Microsoft needs to work on SEOing their massive cache of developer resources (MSDN, TechNet, blogs and product sites) in order to provide appropriate content to search savvy developers. It’s about discoverability.

Before we go on…

An aside: You may or may not know that I was laid off from my job at nsquared in January. This isn’t the post to discuss why, however the reason I mention it is because for the past month I’ve been working on my wife’s site at Get Organized Wizard*. During that time we’ve been getting our heads around SEO, Social Networking and Google AdWords (amongst other things like product creation and general website development).

Here’s the biggest lesson we’ve learnt: People must be able to find you!

Obvious right? Yep. You might have great products, but if people can’t find them, then what’s the point? It’s absolutely crucial that every business understand just how important discoverability is. And by discoverability we mean two things:

1. Knowing what people are searching for, and

2. Optimizing our sites to be found for those terms (ie Search Engine Optimization).

The wonderful thing: most of our competitors have really bad SEO. By tweaking our site, we are climbing up the search results pretty quick. For some of our terms we are now on page 1. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do. And don’t get me wrong – it isn’t easy. In fact, it’s really hard. I guess that’s why there’s a whole SEO industry doing really well now…

Why do I mention this experience? Simply because I think this is a micro-shot (that’s kinda like a micro snap-shot :-) of the problem Microsoft is facing with developers.

Microsoft and Developers

Back to Microsoft engaging with developers. Microsoft has lots of great content, but it’s just not in a format that is easily found by the “majority of developers”. Keep in mind that the “majority of developers” are those still working in .NET 2.0 and SQL Server 2005. They aren’t the minority who are well informed on the latest tools, attend user groups and follow prominent bloggers. No, the majority are the back room guys and girls who provide and maintain the bulk of enterprise software infrastructure out there. Let’s call them the normal developers :-).

Microsoft’s problem is how to engage with these normal developers.

Here’s an example of the kinds of things a normal developer might search for:

Silverlight compared to WPF

I’ve spoken to many people who are still confused about WPF. Here’s a common question: I’ll get asked if WPF is a good strategy for web development and if it’s better than Silverlight. Silly right? Well no, actually. Because it indicates the message isn’t getting communicated well. That’s valuable feedback. And is it any wonder? Take a look at the search results – if you’re unsure what WPF is, then you’re probably still going to be confused after looking through the first page of links**. There’s an opportunity for developer engagement here.

[For the record: WPF is not a web technology, it is client side only (although it can be deployed as an XBAP). And for some clarity on Silverlight, here’s my post from 2007: Flash versus Flex versus Silverlight).]

Long tail searches

Here’s another example, this time on a longer tail term:

Microsoft is always going to rank 1 for generic terms (eg a search for SharePoint is always going to show a Microsoft site first), but it’s the longer tail terms that developers are really searching for. Take a look at this search term: “how to install SharePoint services” and tell me if you think the results** are high quality. These kinds of things are another big opportunity for Microsoft to engage really well with developers.

Damage control

And taking it a step further, it’s not only developer engagement, it’s also damage control. Take an example from my own blog:

One of the more popular posts on my blog has been this one: How to Uninstall IE8. These days (almost 12 months after I originally wrote it) it still gets a reasonable amount of traffic. Why? Because it ranks well. Here’s yet another opportunity for Microsoft – this time to capture an angry audience and soothe their frustrations. If Microsoft could rank number 1 for this search term, and then take the user to a friendly page that walked them through not only how to uninstall, but also offered solutions for common frustrations with IE8 they might just win back a few users they’d otherwise lose.

So, how do they go about this?

The solution: dedicated SEO specialists at Microsoft

As I mentioned earlier, the solution to discoverability is two-fold:

1. You need to know what people are searching for

2. Once you know what they want, you need to make the right content rank well for those terms

This is essentially internet marketing 101. Sounds easy of course, but it’s really hard. It’ll take time. 

In my opinion Microsoft needs to do this if they are going to engage successfully. Instead of developers being directed to advert-laden, dodgy IT forums and years old sites when they search Google (eg see the earlier search example results), they need to be directed to appropriate content on Microsoft sites. 

Each product team needs to have a dedicated group of Keyword researchers and SEO trained content authors. If they aren’t already, they should also be providing training to all their higher profile bloggers on how to target and rank for specific search terms.

Keyword researchers should be using feedback from the developer evangelists and technical specialists to narrow in on what terms normal developers are searching for (point 1 above). And then use SEO specialists with their technical writers and product managers to create/format the content appropriately (point 2 above).

Let me stress: this isn’t about lack of good content. I’ve been really impressed with the initiatives Microsoft has put into providing excellent community portals, full of rich, useful information. The problem isn’t lack of content. The problem is getting it to the right people.

Microsoft PDC - awesome stuff for the minority developers - but how to engage with the majority?

Some final thoughts

The days of flashy events, road-shows and other extravaganzas are pretty much gone for the next few years. Microsoft needs to spend its marketing dollars really strategically now.

Perhaps most importantly, Microsoft needs to optimize for Google ranking (which is quite different to Live Search ranking). With things like Universal Search mainstream now, LSI pretty much a requirement, and the growing importance of micro-formats for SEO, Microsoft needs to plan strategically for Google result dominance (as well as understanding that ranking in Live Search is not going to guarantee any results in Google).

Divisional structure will be a problem

Microsoft is a big company so I’m sure there’s a ton of different departments and divisions working out how best to spend marketing and advertising dollars. The problem is that there’s often no real unified strategy for targeting developers. Each division has its own KPIs. That’s why expensive banner ads and trade magazine pages seem to be the standard approach for many marketing efforts. I’m guessing the conversion rates on these are very low, and achieve little more than brand awareness.

But if some of those marketing dollars were spent on proper SEO initiatives and driving developers to the right pages, I’m sure there’d be much greater buy-in from users, and a much higher willingness to be cross-sold to.

But hey, I’m not a marketer so I realise I’m speaking from ignorance here! So consider this last point less as a suggestion for how to do it, and more as feedback as to what I, a developer, would prefer to experience.

Conclusion: Developer engagement

Coming full circle now and back to engaging with developers, it’s pretty simple to see how Microsoft can improve their reputation significantly and foster deep developer satisfaction: Find out what they want, and make sure they can get to it! But it’ll take a change in approach from both marketing and technical teams, and with it a re-working of the incentives and KPI structures in place.


* Get Organized Wizard provides organizers and systems for organizing your life, personal organization and goal setting

** Note that your search results might be different to mine – Google tailors results based on your search history – but hopefully the results you see will be similar to mine and you’ll understand my point.

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