Bing Ascendant?

Bing Search Home imageInteresting news in the search landscape today: Microsoft’s search engine product, better known as, has exceeded 30% of search market share for the first time ever. It’s interesting (and heartening, in our opinion, because real competition in the space is badly needed) to see another search engine gain at the expense of Google, because the trend for so many years has been exactly the opposite. Congratulations, Redmond.

There are, as always, a couple of caveats worth noting. First of all, that roughly 30% market share isn’t all and their related apps and search products. Half of it is Yahoo!, who long ago gave up on improving their own search engine and “contracted out” the technology to Bing. Bing-branded market share is really only about 15%. Nevertheless, any growth against Google by competing services is impressive.

Second, it’s possible that, in addition to the Yahoo! deal, Bing’s growth can be attributed to their aggressive deal-making and sponsorships over the last year or so. In addition to its own position as the default search engine on Windows Phone 7 devices, Bing has inked deals with Android handset makers to deliver Bing-co-branded phones. Some Android enthusiasts call this aggressive bundling of sponsored apps and services by carriers on many Android phones “junkware,” but there’s no doubt that we’ll see more and more of this as a way for wireless carriers to subsidize hardware cost.

Still, Bing is doing some innovative things (including sneaky copying, if you ask Google) in the search space. They’ve arguably created a more elegant method of visual search than Google’s, which seems to be in a constant state of flux and experimentation. On the other hand, they’ve been unable to build a legitimate travel/lodging search feature, opting instead to partner with Of course, Google now poses a serious threat in the travel space with their approved acquisition of ITA, so Bing had no choice but to move quickly since their internal efforts on travel search had been met largely with the sound of snoring.

What does all this mean for online businesses, search engine optimization and e-commerce? You should probably stop ignoring Bing. Google was so dominant during the last decade that, for most businesses, focusing exclusively on Google in matters of organic performance and pay-per-click was a reasonable strategy to limit your scope and still reach the vast majority of buyers. Now, with others growing at Google’s expense, you’ll have to consider whether or not the eyeballs on these other services merit any special consideration.

This shouldn’t change your content strategy much; in fact, if Google was right about Bing’s long-tail search snooping, Bing is likely running on a very similar set of signals to what Google uses, since they seem to be testing (or, if you believe Google’s accusations, outright duplicating) their results against what Google returns. It remains to be seen if Bing will truly innovate on the algorithmic side of search; to date, their claims to fame have been speed (marginally important at best when you’re talking about millisecond differences); user interface (visual search, and the questionable background images on their search pages); and aggressive sponsorship, advertising and acquisition. Whether their results are actually higher quality than Google’s is hard to tell.

That’s where Facebook comes in. Last year –  somewhat quietly, really – Bing and Facebook announced a deal to partner on search. We haven’t seen too much out of this yet, and Facebook certainly doesn’t need Bing nearly as much as Bing needs Facebook. But Google’s single biggest threat remains the juggernaut that is Facebook – if more and more users start living their lives inside Facebook and using friends and connections as “trusted sources” for search, Google’s dominance will decline. Throw in Facebook’s AdWords look-alike advertising system that can target consumers with more pinpoint precision than Google ever hoped for, and you have a potential nightmare scenario for Google’s primary revenue stream – advertising. It’s no wonder that new-not-new Google CEO Larry Page is rumored to have an issued an edict on making Google’s products more social.

Whether social is truly in Google’s DNA remains to be seen. But whatever Facebook and Bing have cooking, you can bet that it is going to come at the expense of Google. Should be interesting to watch.