This week Microsoft publicly claimed that the new search engine it is building will be better than Google in six months. That bold assertion was made by Neil Holloway, Microsoft president for Europe, Middle East and Africa, at the Reuters Global Technology, Media and Telecoms Summit. As reported on the Reuters news wire, Holloway said, “In six months’ time we’ll be more relevant in the U.S. market place than Google… The quality of our search and the relevance of our search from a solution perspective to the consumer will be more relevant.”

It’s hard for the average Internet search user to take that claim very seriously. After all, the most prominent Microsoft search engine on the market right now is MSN, and it has never been very effective or innovative. It has always played “me too” with AltaVista, Yahoo, and now Google. On the other hand, I would bet that Microsoft is not building its new search engine around MSN, but rather around its quietly launched experimental project. I’m still not a big fan, but I will say this — even in its embryonic form, it is currently the next best thing to Google in terms of providing relevant search results.

That doesn’t mean I’m convinced that Microsoft will build a better search engine. Two years ago, before Goolge launched its IPO, I vowed that I would not invest in Google — even though I had been using their search engine almost since its inception and absolutely loved it. Still, I felt like it really didn’t have much of a business model nor did it have the resources of Yahoo and Microsoft. I felt like both Yahoo and Microsoft would eventually catch up with their search technology and the gig would be up for Google. Now, I still think Google has a limited business model, but it has become a commercial success with its paid listings business and it has gotten a huge cash infusion from its stock sales. As a result, Google is no longer outgunned on resources by Microsoft or Yahoo. In fact, it would be easy to argue that Google has lot more (and better) engineer talent working on search development than either of those two giants, or anyone else. THAT is what makes me skeptical about Microsoft’s claims.

Okay, so I also promised a funny story. Last fall I was in Redmond at a meeting where Steve Ballmer was addressing 2,500 Microsoft MVP awardees (individuals — mostly IT pros — with expertise in particular Microsoft technologies who participate in forums and/or write IT articles and books). Ballmer stormed back and forth on the stage in his usual passionate, confident, and engaged manner — the guy is definitely one of the most entertaining speakers in the IT industry for me. However, there was one brief moment where he flinched during his presentation. After asking the audience to give Microsoft’s new search tools a try and then e-mail him directly with their feedback, Ballmer asked for a show of hands for who currently had Google set as the homepage in their Web browser. As the hands shot up, Ballmer lifted his chin and slowly scanned back and forth across the auditorium to see about 80% of the people in the room had poked a hand in the air. Keep in mind that many of the people in this room were Microsoft’s most loyal advocates and the rest of the folks were people Microsoft was trying to treat really well in order to enhance their opinions about the Redmond software giant. When Ballmer saw all of those hands up, he looked like someone had just sucker-punched him in the gut. After an obvious pause, Ballmer’s tone softened and he said, “Well, we’ve obviously got some work to do.”

I wouldn’t count Ballmer and Microsoft out (especially seeing the progress they’ve already made with, but the mountain they have to scale to win in search is a lot higher than it was even just two years ago before the Google IPO.

And I must admit … I’m a 3-time Microsoft MVP and Google is the home page on all of my PCs, laptops, and test machines, and has been for over five years. Microsoft will have to come up with something very appealing to change that.