You may find this hard to believe, but back in the 90s, I was what you might consider a bit of a Microsoft fanboy.
I bought practically every piece of software they made (yes, including Bob). I was at the midnight launch of Windows 95 in my hometown. I bought Windows Me and XP the day they came out. But then a combination of things happened. First, Apple’s products started to get better and the iPod served as a gateway drug of sorts to their computers. Second, the rise of Google and the web as a whole made what desktop software I was using less important. Third, Microsoft’s products went through a period of lack of innovation, or worse, regressed.
I bring this up because some people familiar with my work, seem to want to believe that I dislike all Microsoft products by default. That’s simply not true. Even to this day, I will praise the work Microsoft has done with the Xbox 360. And I find a smattering of other things within the company that I find interesting, like Azure. And now something else from Microsoft is coming on my radar: Bing.
I’ll admit that I mocked Bing from the second I heard its name, as basically a non-starter. But here we are a few weeks later, and I’m still hearing a significant number of people talking about it when I go various places. At the very least, that’s a marketing win for Microsoft — but that will only get you so far. More interesting to me is that Bing does actually seem to be pretty good at what it was built to do: Search — er, sorry, “Discovery.”
Take tonight, for example. The Los Angeles Lakers just won the NBA title, so there are a ton of searches right now for Kobe Bryant, the Lakers’ star player. I just did a search for him on both Bing and Google, and to be honest, Bing’s results are a lot better, at least for the here and now.
On Bing, the top result is a full listing of Kobe’s box score from tonight. On Google, the top result is a link to his NBA.com player profile. A few spots down, Google gives me some YouTube clips, but they’re all old. There are no clips on Bing’s main page, but in the top “Highlights” tab, there is a ton of video from tonight’s game. The other tabs on Bing offer easy access to relevant information as well. Sure, Google has its own options to better tailor the results to my liking, but they’re still tucked away, the average user is not going to click on those. And so I really have to say that Bing’s results, as presented to me in this case, are better than Google’s.
Now, that’s just one example, and it’s of a breaking event. But still, I’ve noticed this on a few hot items recently. And perhaps that’s why we’re hearing all the talk about Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin scrambling a team to address the Bing question. I’m not sure how much weight to put in such a report — while it’s become basically the company’s canned response, I’m sure Google really is always tweaking its search engine/strategy. But even the rumor of Google being at least interested by anything Microsoft is doing in search is something we really haven’t heard before. And that’s more than anything Yahoo — still the #2 search provider — can say recently.
So will Bing replace Google as my default search engine? No. The main reason for this is still very simple. Even if Google and Bing have similar results, and even if Bing offers better results in some cases, Google has already won the search war as it exists today. It already exists in people’s minds as basically synonymous with search. Bing could do very well on the desktop web, but that will basically mean low double-digit share versus Google’s high double-digit share.
And while you might point out that something like how Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser once had an over 90% share of the market, but has been failing steadily in recent years. I’d blame that on the fact that Microsoft rested on its laurels with that huge lead for far too long (it basically stopped work on IE for several years), and now has a browser that is arguably the worst on the market.
Google, as a search engine is not in any way, shape, or form the worst on the market. And plenty would still say the exact opposite. I just can’t see Google becoming complacent and yielding ground on search the same way Microsoft did with IE. And so its success should remain perpetual. If nothing else, Google is now built-in as the default browser or homepage on far too many web browsers. That’s not a battle Bing can win.
I know that it’s touting itself as the “decision engine,” but that’s a marketing gimmick that will wear off soon. Search is search — ultimately, people want one place to do it. For now, many will settle for two (Google and Twitter being two examples), if they serve a completely different purpose, but that will change with time. And everyone will also realize that despite the rhetoric, Bing is really not any different as a tool from Google. And when that happens, Google will win that battle.
But there is an interesting opportunity for Bing in the mobile space, I think. Yahoo has been touting mobile as a bright spot for its search product in recent months because it knows that the one really hot area where Google had not yet fully won the battle. The reason for that is that mobile web browsing is still a fundamentally different beast than desktop web browsing. While some browsers like Safari on the iPhone have search built-in, most do not. And so the playing field is much more open on the mobile web.
Microsoft should be pushing hard to make Bing the mobile search (or decision, or whatever it wants to call it) engine of choice. Because mobile browsing on the smaller screen with different input methods is different than the desktop, it stands to reason that searching on these devices should also be somewhat different aside from the simply cosmetic changes. And there are quite a few interesting things you can do easier on mobile device than you can on a desktop, like location. And location leads to some interesting things with advertising, which, at the end of the day, is what this all really comes down to for both Google and Microsoft now from a business perspective.
It’s interesting that Microsoft seems to have some good buzz for Bing so far. And I do think it’s actually warranted. But it’s just a first step. Bing has a name that is on people’s minds right now, but it needs to continue innovating to keep it there. And in my mind, that extends far beyond the desktop space, which Google is not going to yield anytime soon. If Microsoft insists on playing Google’s game on Google’s turf, I fear Microsoft Bing may ultimately end up just as forgotten as Microsoft Bob. But I think these past few weeks have proven that there is at least a little something to Bing, and so it doesn’t have to be that way.