As search becomes a more important and more widely used marketing platform, battles over who controls access to users and the advertising dollars they represent are inevitable. The latest such skirmish has been unfolding between Microsoft and Google over the search box in Microsoft's upcoming version seven of its Internet Explorer (IE) browser. Given that MSN currently ranks third in search engine market share and that IE has been losing ground to Firefox (which enjoys a cross-promotional relationship with Google) in browser market share, Microsoft's proposed solution is to make MSN the default engine in the search box of IE7. Predictably, this solution has ignited controversy, with Google responding by complaining to government regulators about unfair practices.

Brand dominance and significant revenues are at stake here, in this battle of goliaths. And at the center of it all lies a vast population of engaged customers, whose search patterns serve as a leading indicator of not only their online behavior but also how they think about brands and products. Any battles in the search wars ought to be focused on these engaged customers and the insights their search patterns represent.

The escalating clash between Microsoft and Google may help to bring a much-needed focus on the value of search and the benefits of search engine marketing, but we should not lose sight of the customer as this conflict spreads. And I don't mean spreads to include Yahoo! and other search engines. I'm talking about a not-too-distant future when the search box or something very similar sits prominently on every technology platform and offers the same ease-of-use that has made internet-based search such an overwhelmingly popular online activity.

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