Searching for Bad Press?

Searching for Bad Press?

February 2020 | Digital Transformation

Why did Microsoft announce a controversial new browser extension and then pull it days before launch? Are they actively looking for negative publicity?

Microsoft made a major u-turn last week; pulling the launch of a controversial new addition to Office just days before release. The product in question was a planned Google Chrome extension intended to integrate the newish Microsoft Search service into the Chrome address bar. In doing so, Office 365 users would gain the ability to search for Outlook emails, teams message and SharePoint documents directly from Chrome. Sounds useful, even if it's not something that I'd take advantage of regularly.

Alas, the convenience of being able to search for Office documents directly from the browser has a significant downside. Microsoft Search is an extension to the Bing search engine. To use Microsoft Search, you have to use Bing. As such, Microsoft's planned update didn't actually do anything apart from forcibly set Bing as the default search engine in Chrome. Worse, it somehow blocks users from changing their search engine back to Chrome again.

Customer Last?

Naturally, nobody was happy. The announcement of the new extension generated large amounts of negative press across a broad spectrum of technology websites and publications. The phrase browser hijacking was used repeatedly. Given that the extension was apparently going to be installed and activated automatically, this level of criticism is totally deserved. Stressed Office Workers would have found their web searches redirected to Bing with no explanation and no way to fix the situation. Not a happy recipe for anyone.

Fortunately, sanity has prevailed. Microsoft backtracked on the 11th February, three weeks after the extension was announced. It will still be released, but later than intended and on an opt-in basis. Admins have to enable the extension through Office 365 after which it will only be pushed to corporate owned devices. It will not be possible to install it on personal devices. Finally, users can change their default search engine after the extension is installed.

Marketing First?

So, all is well. Microsoft have developed a browser extension that nobody will use. No doubt, it will eventually be killed off due to low adoption. Fortunately, browser extensions like this are relatively easy to develop. It's unlikely that much money has been invested in its creation. Even so, some tech journalists are asking how Microsoft Executives even allowed this situation to develop. Why did no one spot the potential backlash and warn against it? Automatically changing user defaults has got Microsoft into serious hot water in the past.

The answer is, of course, that they knew exactly what would happen. In fact, they were probably counting on a tsunami of negative press. All press is good press if it relates to a product that few have heard of and nobody uses. As a direct result of the controversy, Microsoft Search is a lot more widely known that it was before. I'm guessing that someone has started using the product after hearing about it through a news article on this very topic. Last week's climb down and the associated product changes were probably planned well in advance.

There is, of course, some damage to the Microsoft brand as a result of all this, but not much. For one thing, they already have a track record for announcing controversial product changes and then backtracking. Some of those incidents were no doubt unintentional, such as all the talk surrounding Windows 10's privacy settings at launch. More recent incidents give the impression of a company making dubious announcements just to get a reaction. Such a tactic wouldn't be possible for a smaller or less diversified company. The brand damage would outweigh the product awareness benefits, but Microsoft are so entrenched that the occasional misstep won't change people's opinions.

The Mountain View

It is notable that the company most affected by the entire affair has said absolutely nothing about it. There have not been any statements from Google about Microsoft's new browser extension, even though it directly undermines the core reason for Chrome's mere existence. Chrome's entire purpose is to drive web traffic and user profile data to Google. The search engine giant were worried about being blocked by Apple and Microsoft at the Operating System level, so wanted to control the entire web experience using their own browser. Being blocked from said browser by Microsoft Office is unlikely to go down well at Google's Silicon Valley headquarters.

It is vanishingly unlikely that Google would ever allow Microsoft to forcibly change the default search engine in Chrome. Particularly given that search advertising is by far their largest revenue stream. None of the major browsers allow extensions to be automatically installed these days. Even Adobe are blocked from doing so with their once ubiquitous Flash and Reader plugins. Microsoft probably couldn't install a browser extension that automatically changes Chrome's defaults even if they wanted to. And if they did manage to do so using some backdoor in Windows, Google would be able to block them by blacklisting the extension. Quite why they didn't say so is a mystery.

Written by
Marketing Operations Consultant and Solutions Architect at CRMT Digital specialising in marketing technology architecture. Advisor on marketing effectiveness and martech optimisation.