Despite spending billions of dollars to build its own Bing search engine and online-advertising service, Microsoft has failed to put much of a dent in Google's dominance of the Internet-ad business. It also has gained little traction with a behind-the-scenes effort to convince government officials that Google's business is anti-competitive.
Now the Redmond, Wash., software giant is waging a high-profile, election-style blitz against its Mountain View, Calif., rival - using public-opinion polls, for example, to shape rapid-fire attacks - with the help of Mark Penn, a veteran public-relations executive and former campaign adviser to former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Penn, who previously consulted for Microsoft, was hired full time last year. He has been advising Microsoft on how to "take a fairly esoteric and complex issue and make it accessible to people who don't live in technology all day," according to Stefan Weitz, who runs Microsoft's online businesses.
Public attacks on competitors aren't the norm for most tech companies, but there is precedent. Oracle Corp. has blasted Hewlett-Packard Co. and others. Two years ago, Google accused Bing of copying its search results.
But some industry experts are critical of Microsoft's latest volley, which suggests that Google is invading users' privacy by delivering ads tailored to key words in consumers' email messages. Analysts say the practice, which relies on automated software, has been accepted for nearly a decade.
"The idea that one company is better than the other is disingenuous and deceptive," said consumer advocate Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, adding that all major Internet companies collect user data. "If Microsoft was as successful as Google in the search business, you would not hear a peep out of them on privacy."
Another privacy advocate, however, said he's happy to see a big Internet company treat privacy as a competitive feature. "I think it's very healthy," said John Simpson of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, "even if they're using it to make a buck."
Microsoft first showed its new strategy in the fall with a campaign urging consumers to compare Bing and Google search results. It followed up with ads that criticized a recent change in Google's shopping-search service, which had begun showing results only from merchants who pay to be included.
Google says its new shopping-search policy means consumers get the most accurate listings, but Microsoft and other critics accused Google of quietly abandoning objective results. The attack drew a backlash, however, after the influential blog Search Engine Land reported that Bing's shopping service also required merchants to pay for listings.
Microsoft launched another round of ads this month that attack Google's widely used email program, the free, Web-based service Gmail.
"Google looks for keywords in your personal email and uses them to target you with paid ads," Microsoft charged.