Bing Faces Some Questions

 
 
By Nicholas Kolakowski  |  Posted 2010-06-04
 
 
 

Microsoft Bing Reaches First Anniversary of Chasing Google


Bing proved to be the little search engine that could, at least for the first year of its existence.

In summer 2009, many of the tech industry's higher-ups expressed little public hope that Bing-originally code-named Kumo-could endure for long in the search engine arena dominated by Google. At its outset, Bing's competitive differentiator from its behemoth rival was the ability to quickly drill down, via a set of tabs on the homescreen, into specific search categories such as Videos, Shopping, News, Maps and Travel.

Soon after Microsoft announced Bing's imminent release in May 2009, at the seventh annual D: All Things Digital conference in California, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer attempted to downplay the search engine's role in the company's overall strategy. "I spend more of my time on talent than trying to be 'the search guy,'" Ballmer told an audience during the conference.

According to a transcript from the event, Ballmer offered some of the rationale behind the engine's peppy name: "I'm not the creative guy, here ... short mattered ... people like to 'verb up' ... works globally, doesn't have negative connotations."

Ballmer added: "It's not a substitute for innovation, but we need to build brand equity in addition to technology equity."

The company planned to deploy Bing on June 3, 2009, but ended up jumping the gun by two days, releasing it widely on June 1.

At the Bank of America and Merrill Lynch U.S. Technology Conference in New York, in June 2009, Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz seemed to dismiss Bing's marketplace chances. "They're not going to get scale," she predicted, adding that interest in the search engine would be "temporary."

Google CEO Eric Schmidt also, understandably, dismissed Bing. "It's not the first entry for Microsoft," he said during a June 9 interview on Fox Business. "They do this about once a year. From Bing's perspective they have a bunch of new ideas and there are some things that are missing. We think search is about comprehensiveness, freshness, scale and size for what we do. It's difficult for them to copy that."

Some analysts, however, thought differently.

"Today most advertisers buy search ads just with Google and Yahoo because Microsoft has a measly ... share of searches-not enough reach to make buying search ads with MS worth the trouble," Shar VanBoskirk, an analyst with Forrester, wrote May 28, 2009, on the Forrester Blog for Interactive Marketing Professionals. "Forrester expects Bing to change that."

Bing's market share grew in fits and starts over the following months. In what could be construed as a bit of irony, considering Carol Bartz's earlier comments (unless said comments were a deliberate attempt at misdirection), Microsoft and Yahoo announced an agreement that summer that would see Bing power back-end search on Yahoo's sites, while Yahoo would handle worldwide sales duties for both companies' search advertisers.

If Yahoo's current U.S. search engine market share transfers to Microsoft with no attrition, then Bing's share would rise to somewhere just south of 30 percent. The deal effectively eliminated Yahoo's presence in the U.S. search market, casting search as a battle between two players, Google and Microsoft. (With one caveat: Under the terms of the 10-year agreement, Yahoo can escape the deal if Google's RPS, or revenue per search, query rate becomes higher than the combined RPS rates of Microsoft and Yahoo; Yahoo can also terminate if its RPS rate in the United States is less than a certain percentage of Google's estimated RPS on a 12-month average.)

In fall of 2009, Microsoft announced that Bing would integrate results from Wolfram Alpha, a computational engine that provides a definitive numerical answer to a search query, into its search features, as well as Twitter and Facebook.

Bing Faces Some Questions


 

However, Bing also attracted some controversy. In November 2009, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof accused 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."

In response, Adam Sohn, senior director of Bing, wrote Nov. 20 on the official Bing blog, "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)." Sohn claimed that the bug would be fixed before the 2009 Thanksgiving holiday.

A few days after that alleged fix, eWEEK typed into Bing's search box Simplified Chinese terms considered politically sensitive by the PRC, such as "Tiananmen Square" and "Falun Gong." The results seemed inconclusive.

Meanwhile, Bing continued to add features. On Dec. 2, Microsoft announced new features for the search engine that included a beta version of its new and improved Bing Maps. In addition to Streetside, which provides users with an eye-level view of local terrain, Bing Maps offered Twitter Maps, which displays tweets originating from particular geographic locations. A new Bing Bar for Internet Explorer and Firefox placed much of Bing's functionality in a series of one-click icons beneath the browser's URL bar.

By January, Bing Maps Silverlight site was no longer a beta, and had gained two more features: Local Events, which studs a map with pins showing the day's happenings around a particular locality, and Destination Maps, which lets users specify locations and then render the map around those areas in one of four stylistic fashions: "Sketchy," "European," "American" and "Treasure Map."

By that point, Bing occupied some 9.6 percent of the U.S. search market, according to analytics company Experian Hitwise, while Google occupied 70.6 percent.

In response to rising concerns about the privacy of user data being stored by search engine providers and social networking sites, in January Microsoft announced that it would delete the stored IP addresses of Bing users after six months.

"We will delete the entire Internet Protocol addresses associated with search queries at six months rather than 18 months," Peter Cullen, Microsoft's chief privacy strategist, wrote in Jan. 18 on the Microsoft On The Issues blog. "The change is the result of a number of factors, including a continuing evaluation of our business needs, the current competitive landscape and our ongoing dialogue with privacy advocates, consumer groups and regulators."

Bing saw its U.S. market share dip from 9.62 to 9.43 percent for the period between March and April, according to Experian Hitwise. During the same period, Google's market share gained incrementally, climbing from 69.97 to 71.40 percent.

However, Bing also experienced strong growth in a number of vertical industry categories. Hitwise reported that the percentage of U.S. upstream traffic sent from Bing to shopping sites increased 100 percent year over year; to health-related sites, it increased by 105 percent; to travel sites, by 71 percent; and to automotive sites by 95 percent. In contrast, Google, despite putting in a higher overall number of searches, experienced lesser gains in those categories, with a 15 percent increase year over year for shopping, -6 percent for health, 6 percent for travel and 11 percent for automotive.

According to at least one Microsoft executive, Bing's focus on "nontraditional areas" such as event-driven tasks and commercial queries-which could very well translate into the sort of verticals growth recorded by Hitwise-was deliberate.

"As we look at how people are using the Web itself and how the Web is changing, we think we can expand that which people do with these engines," Bing Director Stefan Weitz said to eWEEK in March. User behavior, he said, would be the ultimate arbiter of Bing's road map.

Weitz also acknowledged Google's substantial lead in traditional keyword search.

 "People are happy with keyword-based search," he said. "People are creatures of habit, and they're fairly happy with Google's keyword search today, and they think it works well and there's no reason for them to look around." However, Weitz added, Bing will continue to compete in that arena, even though "the more exciting place, and the place we're looking at more often, is how we expand the art of the possible in search."

But Ballmer, speaking at the Search Marketing Expo in Santa Clara, Calif., March 2, suggested that Bing still has a long way to go if it wants to eventually overthrow Google: "I don't know how old I will be when that'll happen."

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