We Will Continue to Drive Relevance

By Nicholas Kolakowski  |  Posted 2009-12-15 Print this article Print


To that end, Bartz said, "It's not Bing, it's Yahoo search. We will continue to drive relevance; search is incredibly important to us and our advertisers. We need to provide a great experience, even if the plumbing's down there."

Yahoo's assertiveness, backed by a $100 million ad campaign in September to re-establish the brand, highlights the potential pitfalls of the agreement between the company and Microsoft, which in turn could affect Bing's viability against Google.

The deal "will have to demonstrate major future strategies if it is to make any dent in Google's dominance," StatCounter CEO Aodhan Cullen said in a research note at the beginning of October, which also noted that Bing's share of the U.S. market dipped in September from 9.6 percent to 8.5 percent.

In order to bolster its search-engine competitiveness, Microsoft began integrating more and more features into Bing throughout the fall. On Sept. 14, Microsoft rolled out Visual Search for Bing, allowing users to search for information visually by clicking through images as opposed to typing in a search query.

In November and December, Bing incorporated yet more functionality, including a beta version of Bing Maps. Besides Streetside, a competitor to Google's Street View that offered an eye-level view of local terrain, other features introduced by the end of the year included a more robust video page-integrating feeds from Hulu, MSN Video and ABC-and results from Wolfram Alpha, the computational engine that delivers a definitive numerical answer in response to a search query.

Microsoft seemed determined with Bing Maps to merge the usually static endeavor of online cartography with real-time features such as Twitter Maps, which displays tweets that originated from particular geographic locations, and live traffic video feeds. A new "Bing Bar" for Internet Explorer and Firefox offers one-click access to many Bing features.

But Bing has also taken some flak over the past few months. In late November, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof accused Bing and Microsoft of "craven kowtowing" to the Chinese government by offering "sanitized pro-Communist results" in response to Bing searches in Simplified Chinese for terms such as "Tiananmen" and "Dalai Lama."

Kristof had originally written about the issue in June, and apparently been told by Microsoft that the Simplified Chinese search results were the result of a "bug" that would be fixed. In his November column, Kristof claimed that his searches continued to produce the same sanitized results as before, leading Microsoft to again claim that it was in the process of a fix.

"Today's investigations uncovered the fact that our image search is not functioning properly for queries entered using Simplified Chinese characters outside of the PRC (People's Republic of China)," Adam Sohn, senior director of Bing, wrote in a Nov. 20 posting on the official Bing blog. "We have identified the bug and are at work on the fix. We expect to have this done before the Thanksgiving holiday."

On Nov. 30, eWEEK conducted its own testing of Bing, inputting Simplified Chinese terms considered politically sensitive to the PRC into the search engine. The results of that testing are discussed here; Microsoft insisted to eWEEK that "the bug identified in the Web image search was indeed fixed," before quoting from Sohn's original blog posting. 

Then, on Dec. 3, the search engine crashed for around a half hour, a minor hiccup but one that nonetheless attracted comment from the online community.

"The cause of the outage was a configuration change during some internal testing that had unfortunate and unintended consequences," Satya Nadella, senior vice president of Microsoft's Online Services Division, wrote in a Dec. 3 posting on the official Bing blog. "As soon as the issue was detected, the change was rolled back, which caused the site to return to normal behavior."

If Twitter feeds on Dec. 3 are any indication, the Bing outage did not seem to illicit the same groundswell of online anger that usually accompanies unexpected Google downtime, something that could be attributed to Bing's smaller market share.

Smaller market share is something, obviously, that Microsoft hopes will change in 2010. On Dec. 4, both Microsoft and Yahoo finalized their search-and-advertising deal, with the companies suggesting in a joint statement that their combined force would provide a singular alternative to Google.

"Microsoft and Yahoo believe that this deal will create a sustainable and more compelling alternative in search that can provide customers, advertisers and publishers real choice, better value and more innovation," read the statement.  

Quotes by Ballmer during a November trip to Tokyo suggested that the Yahoo and Microsoft agreement could extend beyond the U.S., contingent on the U.S. Department of Justice approving the deal as expected.

Whether the Yahoo-Microsoft agreement, combined with new functionality for Bing, can drive up Microsoft's U.S. search engine market share is a question that will only start to be answered later in 2010.

Nicholas Kolakowski is a staff editor at eWEEK, covering Microsoft and other companies in the enterprise space, as well as evolving technology such as tablet PCs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Playboy, WebMD, AARP the Magazine, AutoWeek, Washington City Paper, Trader Monthly, and Private Air. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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