Microsoft's Bing search engine currently occupies roughly 9.6 percent of the U.S. search engine market, according to a November research note from Experian Hitwise, while Google occupies 70.6 percent of that market. That might seem an insurmountable lead for Microsoft to overcome, but the executives up at Redmond seem committed to Bing as a long-term project-and if you give something enough of a time frame, the unexpected can occasionally happen.
With that in mind, here are four ways that Bing-which released a new round of tweaks and added features on Dec. 2-could eventually match or even surpass Google's market share.
1. Google develops issues
Some of Microsoft's recent television ads have suggested that "search"-by which is meant, implicitly, Google-offers disorganized search results. But Google's continued popularity, despite any number of challengers that have sprung up over the years, suggests that many users are perfectly happy relying on the search engine giant for their daily tasks. And decades of consumer research shows that if a product's not broken the majority of people are reluctant to switch to a new one offering similar functionality.
But failure happens. Despite the multiple redundancies doubtlessly in place, a handful of Google's offerings-notably Gmail and Google News-experienced hours of downtime at certain points over the summer of 2009. While Google has thus far managed to protect its search engine from similar failures, it's not outside the realm of possibility that the servers managing that core application could experience a system error that forced it offline.
Should that failure scenario occur repeatedly, then Bing would potentially see its market share increase as people seek out a more reliable alternative.
2. Bing creates an alternative ecosystem
Since launching Bing in June, Microsoft has added several new features to the search engine designed to bring it up to competitive speed. In addition to a massively expanded video page-designed to appeal to consumers with a mix of content from Hulu, MSN Video, ABC and other outlets-Bing now offers search results from Wolfram Alpha, the computational engine that offers definitive, often numerical, answers.
But Bing's latest additions on Dec. 2, which include updated maps and visual search that integrates Facebook and Twitter feeds, suggest that Microsoft's overall search engine strategy revolves around granularity: offering users a combination of localized, relevant results and task-specific search options. This is in contrast to Google, which for years has operated on the principle of offering users a one-stop, stripped-down search page-although over the past few months, it too has begun including more tabs on Google.com such as, "Shopping."
Back in May, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land suggested that Bing could succeed as the Avis to Google's Hertz, becoming similar enough in functionality to attract users who need a quick alternative. The more new features that Bing adds, the more likely it is to become the alternative in people's minds-and if that happens, then its market share will increase to the point where it represents more of a realistic threat to Google's dominance.
3. The Microsoft-Yahoo deal creates momentum
On July 29, Microsoft and Yahoo announced an online partnership that would see Bing powering search on Yahoo's sites while Yahoo handles worldwide sales duties for both companies' search advertisers. That deal is currently on track to close in 2010.
Once that happens, if Yahoo's search engine market share ports over to Bing with no attrition, then Bing's share of the market will rise to 26.7 percent, at least based on Experian Hitwise's numbers. That represents less than half of Google's current market share, but it could nonetheless increase Bing's mind share and raise its profile as a viable alternative. If Microsoft follows that up with another $80 million to $100 million marketing campaign, along the lines of the one that accompanied Bing's summer launch, then Bing could see its search engine market share rise above the 30 percent mark.
4. Bing's killer app
A decade ago, Yahoo was the dominant search engine. Then Google came along with a page layout-and an underlying algorithm-that initiated a paradigm shift. There's nothing, at least in theory, to prevent such a situation from happening again: If Microsoft's engineers create a means of search that outdates the current "screen of blue hyperlinks" model, then Bing's market share could increase explosively.
That's pure theory, however. In the meantime, Bing may have to content itself with making incremental gains.