Scroogled dents Google's reputation, claims Microsoft

One of several ways Microsoft measures results of its attack campaign

Microsoft's anti-Google "Scroogled" campaign is a battle for hearts and minds as much as for search and email market share, an analyst said today, but its effectiveness can be measured.

"Scroogled is an attempt to change hearts and minds," said Peter LaMotte, an analyst with Levick, a Washington-based strategic communications consultancy. "In the same way that they are approaching this like an advocacy campaign, it makes sense to measure this like an advocacy campaign."

The campaign -- which started last November, kicked off a second run last month and will continue into the foreseeable future -- was called an advocacy effort by LaMotte two weeks ago.

"This is more than just an ad. This is a fully-realized advocacy campaign," LaMotte said then, ticking off similarities between Scroogled and the kind of political campaigns run by environmentalists and activists promoting constitutional or legislative changes. Both include not only traditional advertising, but also partisan-funded research, frequent polling and grassroots components like petitions.

"Microsoft can monitor sentiment," said LaMotte. "They can analyze what people think of Google versus Microsoft. They can measure what people are saying on Facebook and Twitter. There are plenty of tools that can show sentiment."

In fact, Microsoft is doing just that.

"One of the things we do track is brand perception," said Stefan Weitz, Microsoft's senior director of online services, and the executive who oversees Scroogled. "How much people like the Google brand, how much they trust the Google brand."

Those who rank Google highly -- not surprisingly -- are much harder to convince to try an alternative, say Microsoft's Bing rather than Google's search, or Outlook.com rather than Gmail, Weitz said.

He claimed that for those who visited the Scroogled.com website -- the current core of the campaign now that Microsoft's stopped advertising -- Google's brand reputation dropped by nearly a third.

"When people are exposed to Scroogled, we see a nearly 30% drop in Google's brand reputation," said Weitz. "We expose the truth of what's happening. Facts are facts. And people get upset when they learn them. So, yes, it does deprecate the [Google] brand, as well it should."

The facts -- Weitz's word -- were the essence of Microsoft's most recent anti-Google campaign, which claims that Gmail's machine-based reading of message content for ad displaying purposes is an invasion of privacy, and that Microsoft's Outlook.com, the rebranded Hotmail, does not do the same.

Weitz declined to comment when asked whether there was a direct link between the brand perception change and the attack ad nature of Scroogled, in other words that the latter was the cause of the former, not the argument Microsoft made.

Instead, he defended Scroogled against critics who decried the negative tone, and who urged Microsoft to make its case on the merits of its own Outlook.com.

"Mainstream is into technology, my Mom is getting into technology, but she doesn't care about [things like] specifications, the latency of a service or the colors being used or screen real estate. But she does care about someone reading her email," said Weitz.

A feature-by-feature comparison, said Weitz, might work with the technorati, but would fall flat when pitched to a broader group.

LaMotte, however, noted that while many may bemoan attack ads, there's evidence that they work. And Microsoft's before-and-after brand reputation measurement shows so.

"That's huge," said LaMotte of Microsoft's contention that Scroogled visitors' perception of Google plunged by 30%. "If it's accurate, that's a substantial change in sentiment in such a short span of time."

Others were unconvinced. "Three and a half million visitors is impressive, but not enough to register," said Mike Zammuto, president of Reputation Changer, an online reputation management firm. Reputation Changer has not seen any change in Google's rating post-Scroogled.

"Google has a fantastic brand -- there are only a small number of companies that have [brands that strong], Apple and Google are two -- so it's much harder for someone like Microsoft to put a dent in it," said Zammuto.

With an even broader campaign or one that lasted longer, Microsoft may be able to change perceptions, Zammuto said, "But this hasn't made any difference. Google's brand is too solid."

Microsoft's Weitz owned up to other measuring sticks he's using to evaluate Scroogled, ranging from social media and blog mentions to the number of petition signees.

The petition has accumulated 115,000 signatures, putting the response rate -- the percentage of the 3.5 million Scroogled.com visitors who have signed -- around 3.3%.

"That's very high for an email or online campaign," Weitz asserted. "And it's higher than a traditional marketing campaign."

He's right about email. According to a 2012 survey by the Direct Marketing Association (DHA), email campaigns average a response rate of just 0.12%.

But there are better bottom-line metrics than response rate or brand reputation that could be used to gauge Scroogled's efficacy.

"I feel in some ways I'm arguing counter to our first discussion, when I talked about the advocacy approach," said LaMotte. "But the goal here is the same for any advertising campaign. In a political campaign, the final result is that the candidate gets elected. Here, the bottom line is revenue, and their goal is conversion [from Gmail to Outlook.com]."

On that level, Scroogled hasn't shown much of anything, or better put, publicly-available metrics haven't shown a change.

comScore's search statistics -- the focus of the first Scroogled last November -- showed that Google increased its share by three-tenths of a percentage point to 67% in January, recouping an identical decline in December. Meanwhile, Microsoft's Bing grew its share by two-tenths of a point in January, ending that month with 16.5%, atop a one-tenth of a point increase in December.

Put in plainer words, 2012's Scroogled failed to move the needle on Google's search share. And while it may have played a part in the two-month boost to Bing, Microsoft's gains came at the expense of Yahoo, Ask.com and AOL, not Google.

There are no similar numbers available for possible share changes in Gmail, Outlook.com and other email services since Scroogled's latest debuted last month.

The ultimate metric, however, may be whether Microsoft continues the campaign. On that note, Weitz was definitive. "We'll keep doing this as long as Google keeps 'scroogling,'" he said.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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This story, "Scroogled dents Google's reputation, claims Microsoft" was originally published by Computerworld.

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