Bing: Microsoft Reenters the Search Engine Wars
Bing offers a more attractive search page, but not a notably better search.
By Michael Stillman
The search engine wars may not seem a topic related to the book trade, but of course it is. An increasing number of book sales are generated from search engines, and for those with their own websites, either search engines are your major source of new customers, or you do not have that many new customers. This is how most people find you. Your business may be directly related to the search engines' performance.
Today, "search engine" has become virtually synonymous with Google. At least in America, over three-quarters of searches are believed to be conducted on Google. Businesses live and die by their matches. The only other searchers with significant market share are Yahoo and Microsoft, though they are distant competitors. This must really bug Microsoft, dominant in computer operating systems and related software, but unable to crawl out of a distant third place in the search engine wars.
Now, we may be wrong, but we expect search engines to play an increasing role in selling books online vis a vis the listing sites. Why? The answer is because they can do it more cheaply. They don't have to list books, they simply have to search other sites' listings. They don't have to become involved in sales, and all the related headaches of customer service, because all they do is connect buyers to sellers. The result is they can charge a smaller fee for this connection and let the seller make the sale, which many booksellers prefer to do anyway. So, we expect to see the search engines playing an increasingly important role in online book sales, which is why we believe this topic is important to the book trade. And now we can proceed to the news.
As previously noted, Google dominates the field. This does not please Microsoft. For much of the past decade, Microsoft has been chasing Google, with little success. They first purchased outside search technology, and when that didn't improve their standing, developed their own MSN search. When this made little headway, they developed Live Search. Now, Live is dead too, and Microsoft has moved on to another four letter word: Bing. Early in June, Microsoft canned Live and introduced Bing search to its visitors. Will Bing be the answer to their years of frustration, or another failed attempt to make serious headway into Google's overwhelming lead?
Early returns were favorable to Bing. Well...sort of. According to StatCounter, Microsoft's search share rose from 7.81% to 8.23%, while Google's slipped from 78.72% to 78.48%. I'm no statistician, but that sure sounds like it's within the margin of error, ordinary fluctuations, or both. For something new, the increase appears underwhelming. Perhaps Bing will grow on people as, or if, they use it, but these aren't numbers likely to cause great panic in Mountain View, California.
We took a look at Bing and it's a nice search engine. Instead of having the search box on a plain white page, like Google, Bing places it on a background of a daily changing beautiful picture. That's pretty, but of no particular benefit, maybe even distracting, when it comes to searching. Bing offers some suggestions as you begin typing, but Google can do that too. Bing offers a list of terms related to your search which may be of some marginal benefit for those struggling to find good search terms. Bing is fond of scroll-overs. In Google images, the listing site is shown below the images. On Bing, the site names are not seen until you scroll over the image, at which point it pops up a bit larger and the name of the site appears. This is a clever effect, but slows you down substantially if you want to know on which sites the images are found. Practicality and efficiency has given way to technical wizardry. The interest in special effects wears off. The need for efficiency does not.
Bing: Microsoft Reenters the Search Engine Wars
Of course what is most important in search is the quality of the results. Does Microsoft find more appropriate matches? Not that I can tell. Some matches are similar, and some which show up highly on one search site are missing from the other. However, if one set of matches is significantly more appropriate for the terms searched, it escapes me. The results look very similar.
Herein lies the rub. A few years ago, Microsoft followed Google Books with their own Live Books. When we reviewed it a year and a half ago, we were surprised to find that we liked the Microsoft version a little more. It was not only more attractive, but a bit more user friendly. Six months later, Microsoft threw in the towel. They had invested in scanning some 700,000 volumes at the time, but still couldn't get the traffic to justify further investment. Now, Microsoft comes back at Google with a new search engine that is remarkably similar. Time was, Microsoft, with their software on virtually everyone's computer who didn't own an Apple, could provide a similar or even inferior product, such as an internet browser of spreadsheet, and quickly come to dominate the field. Not with Google. Google is not Netscape, not Lotus 1-2-3. Google dominates the field, and not even Microsoft can challenge them without a vastly superior product. Bing, like Live Search, is nice, but is not significantly better or even different. It offers no particular reason to stop Googling and start Binging. Without that, people are unlikely to change longstanding habits. Keep an eye on Bing for a few extra hits, but we recommend you continue to optimize your website for Google.
Postscript: For those concerned that Microsoft is picking on Google, going after its bread-and-butter application, it should be noted that Google plans to expand its Chrome internet browser into a free Operating System in 2010. Microsoft's very existence is based on selling its paid operating system, just as Google's existence is dependent on people using their search engine to search the internet.
Editor's Note: See Letter to the Editor for a comment regarding non-American searchers.