In the last two months since the advent of Bing, there has been a crush of coverage over the search engine that would lead Microsoft, a search and Internet also-ran, to victory over search king Google, whose 65 percent to 70 percent market share of searches leads the thinning pack.
The search pack is thinning because Yahoo has essentially ceded its search share for cash from Microsoft, whose Bing will be powering Yahoo’s search on the back end for a decade if the Microhoo deal gets the government’s blessing.
But there is also a lot of speculation about whether Microsoft’s Bing technology alone is enough to help Microsoft take the search crown from Google. The answer is no and I will explain why later in this piece. So, if Bing can’t beat Google in innovation, how can Microsoft overtake Google in search?
I believe the mounting discomfort users have in Google keeping their data for search and other Web services, coupled by negative media surrounding encumbering scrutiny (and possible legal injunctions) from federal regulators could trigger a massive defection of its search engine users to Bing, a scrappy underdog in search with tremendous upside.
First, I’ll explain why Bing’s technology won’t be enough to help Microsoft vault Google in search, then circle back to why the growing perception of Google as a greedy company could spur users to defect.
Many reporters, even this one, have written that Microsoft’s search product is vastly improved. Its results are similar to those at Google, accurate and speedy. Overall, the user experience of Bing has been comparable to that of Google, but not incredibly better. Certainly not enough to make millions of users switch in the near term, because people have grown so comfortable with Google. Some exhort us to try.
Microsoft is also pumping as much as $100 million in marketing the new product, and in Yahoo, has a new ally to help it close the gap from 9 percent or so in search to 30 percent. But if Microsoft is to lap Google in search it won’t be from any quantum leap in technological innovation.
So let’s assume two great scenarios for Microsoft that may or may not come to fruition. First, StatCounter continues to show us that Microsoft Bing continues to gain a percentage point each month going forward and second, regulators approve its deal with Yahoo in 2010.
Assuming those two qualifications are true by this time next year, let’s say Microsoft has 40 percent of the search market share, accounting for organic growth, plus the combination of search traffic cultivated by Bing through Yahoo.
Microsoft will still be roughly 20 percent behind Google. Now, let’s consider the brief history of search engines. Google is the only company to storm ahead of search incumbents Yahoo, Microsoft, Ask.com, AltaVista and others in the last decade. There is no evidence to suggest the bulk of Google’s users will flock to Bing wholesale.
Perception Shift Could Lead Users to Bing
Bing would have to undergo a quantum leap in technological innovation to make it a must-have product that compels users to switch from Google. This is possible (in the same sense that anything is possible), but it’s a long shot. Here’s another one that’s less likely in my opinion:
Suppose Google’s search innovation wanes so mightily that it falls behind Bing in even the most obvious technological evolutions. For example, Bing last month began indexing Twitter tweets. I expect Google to do this, but suppose it declines to jump into that real-time pool.
That is the kind of minor technological evolution where Bing and others would lap Google. Take enough of those over time, and people will leave Google much the way they left Ask.com and other search engine also-rans.
I doubt very much that this would happen; just last night Google took the cover off its Caffeine search sandbox, showing everyone that it intends to get not only faster, but more accurate. These are the hallmarks of Google search.
So, how could Bing beat Google? A massive shift in the perception of Google. One of the things that helped Google put such a great gap between itself and other search players such as Microsoft and Yahoo is that Google cultivated a feeling of cool. Google made search cool enough to capture a verb in the hokey pantheon of American nouns that get turned into verbs. Google was the friendly face of the Web to the ugly visage of Microsoft The Monopolist.
The tide, as they say, is slowly turning. Some people are already highly mistrustful of a company that not only stores users search data for nine months (though the facts behind this policy has been ripped by some privacy researchers), but hosts enterprise data on its servers by delivering software-as-a-service applications.
Now combine that user mistrust with a growing unease in Capitol Hill that Google is getting too greedy, too big for its britches. Christine Varney, assistant attorney general for antitrust at the Department of Justice wants Google’s blood, said:
That statement alone tells us which way the wind is blowing in Washington, D.C. Google has surfed a tremendous search wave for more than a decade to the point where it is now collecting $20 billion a year, largley from search-related advertising.
But Google’s desire to expand its search purview have left a vaguely low-tide smell in the nostrils of not only rivals, but corporate regulators such as the DOJ and FTC, privacy and antitrust concerns, and some users.
The DOJ and FTC may have allowed Google to buy DoubleClick, but they are still uneasy about this because of the glut of consumer data Google gained with the buy. Google certainly didn’t do itself any favors in the greed is good department when it tried to partner with Yahoo on search last year.
The DOJ is looking into Google’s Book Search deal, which has been opposed roundly by some publishers and many privacy advocates.
Bing Will Look Better Than Google
There are other areas where Google is being scrutinized, some of which I’m sure we’re not even aware of; this does not mean Google is becoming or has become evil. It’s trying to feed a growing machine.
Google is slowly cultivating the perception that it’s becoming too data-hungry in its quest for indexing and organizing as much of the world’s info online as it can, through the Android mobile operating system, Chrome Web browser and forthcoming Chrome Operating System for netbooks.
In fact, some have compared Google’s thirst for branching out in cloud computing, or the Internet, to Microsoft’s own tentacular approach to the desktop. They compare Google’s multichannel approach to search and Web services via Google Apps, Android, Chrome and Chrome OS to Microsoft’s broad desktop strokes with Windows, Office, Windows Media Player, and Internet Explorer).
That pervasive approach served Microsoft well, but because Microsoft chose to bundle software applications with Windows, the DOJ came down on it for owning the desktop operating system market and trying to own the browser market by bundling browsers with Windows-based PCs. Microsoft has recovered from the DOJ’s fallen hammer, but it is still reeling from an ongoing European Commission antitrust crackdown.
You can argue that after the DOJ put Microsoft in its place that millions of users didn’t flee from Windows because Windows had already saturated the market. Barring a systematic revolt, this made it virtually impossible to rip Windows out by the roots.
Search is different. Users may be staying with Google because they are comfortable now, but what if they get so fed up by the legal brouhahas that they revolt? You know Microsoft will fire up the anti-Google marketing machine for users on the fence. Microsoft is trying hard to make Bing look cool and if you’ve seen the Bing search blog lately you know there is excitement around the product. This is no limping-along Live Search.
If the government cracks down on Google for being the Internet poster child for greed, users could grow increasingly disenchanted with Google as their search engine. Google would become much like Microsoft has been on the Internet until Bing: uncool and not a place to live on the Web. Google users could leave for Bing and by extension, products such as the new Office Web alternative to Google Apps.
Microsoft has nothing to lose and everything to gain, and if we look at Bing as Microsoft’s new entry into an established market, we cannot ignore this simple fact: Microsoft does not lose in the markets it enters. It devoured the desktop, it devoured the office productivity space and it devoured the browser market.
How can Google avoid this? I’m not sure it can, unless the company has some magic antitrust bane to ward off Varney, privacy and antitrust pundits and others. It’s how Google handles the action when the DOJ’s hammers fall that could determine whether or not it comes out whole.
If not, the public perception of Google will deteriorate past the point of no return and Bing will reap the rewards. Growing disgust with Google may be the only way Bing has a chance to win in search.