Why does Microsoft bother with Internet Explorer?


Internet Explorer - why does Microsoft bother?For a while* now I’ve been wondering what value there is in having web browser market share?

Or more specifically, why does Microsoft continue to invest in building their browser. And further, why do they spend money promoting it? You’ll see here in GP’s post that IE8 is a significant strategy for the company (in Australia at least).

In a nutshell the question is: What value is there in being the dominant browser?

For example: Let’s assume that one browser is completely dominant (eg 95% as IE used to have ‘back in the day’). What would this achieve? What monetization value does this actually provide? Is it the ability to drive some traffic to promoted sites? Is it branding? Is it about providing a better tool for users? Unlikely…

What its not

First a few obvious comments:

So, what reasons are relevant?

The Google Chrome answer

Why did Google build Chrome?The thing to consider is this: Why has Google entered the browser market?

Whilst I won’t deny that Google (or Microsoft for that matter) have an interest in making the internet ‘a better place’, I’m sure they aren’t building their browser(s) for the same reasons as say Mozilla are.

Rather, in Google’s case it is much more likely to be about being able to improve the profit making potential of their income producing lines.

I wonder if this might be about search after all…

Consider this. What are search engines trying to achieve?

As search engines evolve, their primary purpose is to give users the best, most relevant results. To date, this has been achieved by analysing the content, looking at linking patterns and myriad other algorithmic factors. Remember, search is still in its infancy. But it is starting to evolve…

It’s about the experience

A fundamental way search engines can give users better results is by understanding how the user experiences the web. So, by understanding better how a browser renders a page, and correlating that with what users like (eg at its simplest, whether they click the ‘Back’ button after clicking on a search result), they can start to make some interesting deductions.

(Keep in mind that how a user ‘sees’ page is much different to how a bot ‘sees’ a page. Understanding how a page renders is quite different to pulling out the content from the html. A user experiences how a page renders. A bot deduces how the content is presented. That’s why eye-tracking studies are so valuable – it’s not so much what the content is, but rather, how we experience it and react to it.)

Steve Ballmer - Microsoft to spend billions on search in the next 5 yearsWith search being such an important strategy for Microsoft now (Steve mentions they’ll be spending billions on it in the next 5 years), it isn’t really a surprise that they’ll be using every possible input in order to provide the best results (or at least the perception of) to users.

By having a deep understanding of how users (literally) view content they will have an advantage when it comes to understanding why users react to certain content. And from that they can deduce what future searches would be best met with.

Put another way: Microsoft isn’t so much interested in providing a better browser experience (despite what their marketing fluff says), but rather in understanding what a user’s browser experience is.

Aside: Google book search

Consider the Google book search program****. One of the reasons Google has invested so much in its Book search program is in order to improve the experience. Sure, on one hand it is about providing access to more content. But on another it is about understanding how ‘real’ content is written. How it is formatted. How it is laid out.

Understand the content experience of enough books and you have an insight into how ‘real’ content is presented (as well as all the other factors like LSI etc). And if you can spot ‘real’ content you have a better chance of separating the ‘obviously prepared for search engines’ content from the ‘prepared for people’ content.

Which in turn allows you to provide better search results to users.

An ideal world…

In an ideal world users wouldn’t have to view a list of search results. Instead they’d simply put in a search term and be taken straight to the best result for them. They’d expect the ‘thing’ (browser/search engine/internet/whatever) to do the thinking for them and give them the result they need.

There’s a few reasons this isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

20-25% of Google queries have never been searched before

  • A significant portion of search engine queries are unique. One statistic that is often quoted is that 20-25% of search queries each day are unique***.
  • Search engines need to know a lot more about you before they can reliably give you what is best for you. It will be interesting to see how privacy and localisation issues relate to this in the coming 12-24 months.
  • And of course, the engines can’t make money if they aren’t the intermediary.

So for foreseeable future, use of search engines is only going to increase.

It’s not just about advertising

BTW don’t think that Microsoft’s Bing strategy is just about advertising revenue (although that of course is a big part of it). Much of Microsoft’s success depends on adoption of new products and version upgrades. And in turn a big part of promoting adoption is reaching the typically hard-to-reach users. These are the people who (happily) use older versions (think Windows XP, Office 2003, Visual Studio 2005, etc) and are oblivious to the benefits of new versions. How do you reach them?

Well, chances are they do have problems and issues to solve. So imagine the value of understanding what these typically hard-to-reach people are searching for (I’ve kinda touched on this in the past). If you know what they are searching for, you have a key insight into what content to provide on your sites. And the greater your search engine penetration the better insight you have.

Thus, by increasing search market share, Microsoft can gain a significant insight and strategic advantage in positioning its entire product line.

Back to Internet Explorer

Let’s return to how this all relates to Internet Explorer.

Here’s my summary:

  1. Search is incredibly important to Microsoft (both as an advertising revenue source, and an insight into the minds of hard-to-reach users in order to up-sell them)
  2. Microsoft needs to provide a better search tool (in order to compete with Google)
  3. Deeply understanding how a browser renders and the browser experience of the user can be a key advantage in providing a better search tool
  4. By continuing to have the dominant browser, Microsoft has an opportunity to deeply understand the user’s browser experience and thus realise the potential of point 3
  5. Thus Microsoft needs to continue building and promoting Internet Explorer

That’s why I think Microsoft bothers with Internet Explorer.

Internet Explorer 8A final thought on Internet Explorer promotion

Whilst generating buzz about IE8 seems all well and good, I do think Microsoft need to be careful they don’t alienate their existing happy customers. I, for one, have been cringing a little of late as they launch yet another sub-par promotion.

Sure, people are talking about them, but I don’t necessarily subscribe to the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ notion. Existing customers want to be proud of their decisions, not niggled by a techie form of buyer’s remorse.


* When I say ‘a while now’ I mean since 26 March when I started writing this post. Seriously. I need to get my act together :-)

** To be fair though – this point comes from a survey of just 50 people – hardly indicative of reality.

*** Keep in mind that the 20-25% statistic is from 2007.

**** I need to credit Aaron Wall for many of the thoughts in this post. I’m a member of his SEO training program and have found it invaluable. One of his posts (within the training – so I can’t link to it unfortunately) mentions the benefit of understanding how browsers render. He also describes how Google has benefited from its book search program. The 20-25% image is taken from Aaron’s SEM Training blog post.