Like the phony war that marked the early months of World War II, the search engine wars have been pretty much lacking in combat. If it takes two to tango, it also takes two to fight a war and Google has so completely owned the field in search that to describe the resulting marketspace as a war has been about as apt as applying the term to when my younger daughter indulges in her habit of playing both hands in a game of cards. War it has not been. Bing may change that.
Bing’s success is contingent on two very different factors – only one of which I have any ability to judge. The first factor is marketing. Whatever Bing’s technical merits, if the marketing campaign doesn’t shift at least trial usage then it simply won’t matter. Google’s lock on search share has been unrelenting; and Google owns most consumer’s mind-share. Personally, I don’t think much of Microsoft’s ad campaign (but that’s not my business). They are, at least, putting some serious dollars behind it.
On the other hand, I’ve been using Bing pretty extensively and we’re also doing some formal measurement on it right now. And on the technical side I think its strengths and weaknesses are pretty obvious.
From a user-interface perspective, Bing is, quite simply, much better than Google. That’s really no surprise – Ask has been better than Google for years without making any real dent in search usage. On the other hand, the difference has never been wider. Bing’s best features include a rollover popup of the page on natural search (I love this feature), excellent guided navigation and search refinement cleanly tucked in the left hand-column, and mash-ups that provide a pretty good alternative source of information about an entry before clicking through. Each of these features is a significant win vs. Google. In fact, I like just about every aspect of the Bing interface better than comparable Google features – even to things I really didn’t expect to be better like the map view and the default settings used there when you switch from a search to a map.
Now none of this adds up to a decision-engine – which is one of the reasons why I don’t like the marketing campaign. If you come out to Bing expecting anything other than a significantly nicer search engine interface, you’re going to be disappointed.
And, of course, search isn’t all about UI – the quality of search results has always been more important than the UI, and it has been the superiority of Google results vs. competitors like Ask that have negated the UI advantages of those systems.
I don’t think Bing is as good as Google – particularly for esoteric searches or cases where you’ve gotten some part of the search wrong. Google is amazingly good at figuring stuff like that out.
I do like Bing’s video search results better than Google’s – which I believe are too weighted to YouTube vs. the owning site. And, as with all the other aspects of the UI, Bing's video search results page is vastly superior to Google’s.
While Bing’s search results aren’t quite to Google standards, Bing is much better than Ask, and in the vast majority of common searches, I find Bing’s results to be roughly comparable to Google’s. On many searches, I couldn’t reasonably decide which result set was better – that’s a fact of life in natural search where it is simply impossible to choose between many thousands of sites based on two or three keywords.
Indeed, it’s the abject stupidity involved in thinking there is one right answer to the vast majority of queries that has always made me believe that improving organic search necessitates improvements in the UI not the search algorithm. Bing is the first real test case of that thesis – and while it doesn’t deliver everything I’d like, it is, in my opinion the best experience out there. I’ve changed my default search from Google to Bing – something I would never have done with Ask or any other search experience.
If Bing does shift share, of course, it’s as likely to be from Yahoo as Google. But any significant share shift will result in something that has never before happened in this young marketplace – Google will actually be under pressure to improve their basic search UI.
Can they do it?
Of course they can. Google has proven they are the best company in the world at building interactive online experiences. So why the pathetic experience you get in their core product and the almost sole source of their wealth? I think the reason is simple and yet not widely recognized.
Google makes money when you click on paid ads not natural search. Natural search results are the glue that keeps users coming back – but they drive no revenue whatsoever. So the more you improve the natural search experience and the more interactive that experience, the greater your risk of shifting share INSIDE your own engine from paid to natural search. From Google’s perspective, that would be very, very bad.
I’ve always believed that as long as nobody could shift share from Google, they had a strong incentive not to improve their natural search interface and heaven knows that’s certainly how they’ve treated it.
So the real threat from Microsoft is that it may force Google to bite their own hand. It will be real challenge to Google if they have to create a system that is better than Bing and that doesn’t shift internal share. Of course, the same holds true for Microsoft. Will Bing hold ads and revenue? To some extent, Microsoft can and must take that gamble. They need share to be relevant – they can worry about monetization later. And, of course, strategically if Microsoft can force Google revenue cuts, they can impede the unending stream of app innovation that paid search on Google currently funds. I have to think that would be a good thing from the view of the boys in Redmond.