"All the talk about default settings giving one company an advantage over another is completely overrated," said David Berkowitz, director-strategic planning at search marketing firm 360i. "When Google became Google, it was no one's default setting."
The new Window Live Active Search feature, which gives users direct access to MSN search, includes a search sidebar populated partly with sponsored listings. These listings come directly from MSN's adCenter, which Microsoft recently launched to compete directly against Google's AdSense keyword ad marketplace.
Bridging the divide between e-mail and search -- the two most common tasks performed online -- will create a "powerful way for advertisers to reach consumers with performance-based text advertising in a way that is much more relevant to their daily lives," said Aly Valli, Microsoft's product manager for Windows Live Monetization.
Analysts, however, are skeptical. "Microsoft is trying to associate itself, in the minds of users, with search," said search expert Greg Sterling. "But people use a search engine because of the quality of the search and ease of use. ... And the number choosing Google over its rivals just keeps growing."
Google's growing market share
In April, Google snagged one out of every two searches in the U.S., according to Nielsen/NetRatings. Yahoo, by contrast, accounted for 22% of U.S. search share in April, while MSN accounted for 11%. What's more, Google's share grew 3% year-over-year in April compared with Yahoo's share, which was flat.
Microsoft is currently busy trying to convince search marketers of its ad network's superiority to Google's AdSense, because of what it calls adCenter's "exclusive targeting features." These allow registered advertisers to specifically target ads by day of the week, time of day, geographic location and specific demographic.