The Microsoft-Yahoo! search deal shines a spotlight on Bing, Microsoft##s nifty new search engine. But it also raises a thorny question: In search, will the best technology necessarily win?
Maybe not. In this business, brand awareness counts for a lot–and the No. 1 search player, Google, has a lot of it.
“Somebody has to break what I call the ##Googleflex,##” says Todd Dagres, a high-tech venture capitalist with Spark Capital. “It##s a reflex people have. Every time you go to search, what do you naturally do?” For lots of people, it##s to go to Google.
In Bing, Microsoft now has a very good product to put up against Google##s. Feature for feature, it might even be better. And thanks to the just-inked search pact with Yahoo!, lots more people will be using those features. Through the deal, Microsoft basically tripled its market share in Web search to between 25% and 30%. (Bing will become the default search engine on Yahoo!##s sites.) Google has more than 60% share.
But Microsoft still has to convert more customers to win this battle. It##s doing that partly through new-style marketing; Bing has a “fan club” on Facebook and about 25,000 followers on Twitter, says Stefan Weitz, director for Bing. (He and other employees of the search group regularly tweet about the technology and respond to customers who tweet product suggestions or complaints.)
Microsoft##s core competitive focus, though, seems to be on technology. The company has worked hard to make Bing extremely intuitive and user friendly.
There##s a splashy photo on the home page every day, instead of a Spartan search box and a lot of white space. When people search for certain things–say, a company like UPS–Bing knows that most people are looking for the United Parcel Service home page. So when the search results show up, the only one on the page is a link to that home page–the other results are hidden. Bing also lists the customer-service number for UPS right in the result, and also includes a box for you to type in the tracking number for your package. (Bing figures lots of people are searching for UPS because they need to track a parcel in the mail.)
There are other cool features, too, like the ability to more easily get to airline or restaurant information. Searches for celebrities, like singer Taylor Swift, group query results into categories you might find useful, like her biography, song lyrics and tour dates. Microsoft showed off some of these features during a demonstration Thursday at its annual meeting for financial analysts.
But all this means nothing if people aren##t using the search engine. “A lack of search volume is not a trivial problem,” wrote Technology Business Research Senior Analyst Allan B. Krans in a research note this week. “It##s the fundamental flaw that is preventing any success of positive financial return from the business.” Fewer users mean fewer advertisers. Krans says that Microsoft “recognizes this, and is leaving no rock unturned in solving the issue.”
Partnering with Yahoo! goes partway to solving the problem. But Microsoft will need to start stealing more share from Google soon to finish the fight. It won##t be easy: Microsoft##s Weitz points out that his team tested dozens of different shades of blue when it was considering what color to use to display Bing search results.
But the color is still blue, almost indistinguishable from Google##s results. “We##ve been so trained for the last decade to think of search this way,” Weitz said in an interview on Microsoft##s campus this week. Microsoft##s challenge is un-training people. Investors just hope Microsoft, which lost $1.2 billion in its online-services business last year, doesn##t have to lose billions more to get there.