ANALYSIS: Clash of the desktop titans
With nearly 95 per cent of the search-engine market, Google has built up a dominance that is almost unsurpassed in any other sector. But with Microsoft relaunching its Live Search website as Bing and making a clean break from its old web tool, some believe that Google will at last face some serious competition for desktop loyalty.
Microsoft officially unveiled Bing at the All Things D conference in San Diego on May 28, before launching it live on
June 3. Notable changes from the Live Search model include listings of search suggestions in real time as queries are entered, and a list of related searches or an âexplorer pane' based on semantic technology from PowerSet, which Microsoft purchased last year.
In essence, Bing's creators claim to have engineered a search engine that generates âcleaner' results at the first attempt, and are reportedly spending up to £100m on a publicity campaign for its launch. But, as Microsoft starts what promises to be an epic drive to persuade people to âBing it' rather than âGoogle it', how can it hope to persuade business buyers and business brands to switch allegiance?
A decision engine
In an attempt to capture a significant portion of the search-engine user market, Microsoft has dubbed Bing a âdecision engine' after adding features that it suggests will give searchers faster access to the correct information.
When searching for an item, Bing will highlight the official website of that term (so if you were searching for âMac', Apple.com would be highlighted at the top of the search results, with the rest displayed below). Designers claim Bing even goes a step beyond that by actually listing commonly-used information from the sites in the results themselves, such as appropriate telephone numbers. Microsoft believes this kind of functionality will be key in convincing B2B users to switch.
However, it is Microsoft's projected conversion figures that will be of most interest to web advertisers.
"Last year a study by Nielsen Net Ratings revealed that, on average, Live Search achieved 52 per cent more conversions from Internet searches than Google," says Cedric Chambaz, marketing manager for Microsoft advertising. "This doesn't just mean taking people to landing pages - that is people making purchases. Even if we didn't have the same amount of traffic as Google, we had a far superior conversion rate."
Nevertheless, Microsoft expects the most difficult challenge to be changing the habits of thousands of corporate users, many of which will currently have Google set as their homepage. While most industry executives admit that the task is a large one, several are confident that Microsoft can enjoy some success in the years to come.
"If Bing can get the formula right then it is possible it could start to erode the base that Google has built," says Teddie Cowell, CEO and director of Guava search marketing agency. "It's about combining relevancy of results with website experience and getting that balance. Microsoft looks like it has made some innovations, but we can expect some movement from Google - which has been saying for a couple of years that it has big plans for developing in the sector."
However, Cowell describes Bing as a âmore experimental' approach than that of the market-leader: "The interface is a strong point, and other features have an apple-like feel to them - the images section in particular," he says. "The results also feel cleaner and most people I have spoken to have reacted positively to it."
Search engine inertia?
So how is it fairing so far? Feedback and the blogspace has been relatively kind to Bing since its launch last month, but even those that have warmed to it realise the massive task it faces to even draw near Google.
Warren Cowan, CEO of Greenlight, explains that Comscore - the highly-regarded Internet marketing research company - recently published figures that suggest movement across the search sector is expected to be at a minimum in the months ahead. "The technically savvy people will probably be the most difficult to prise away from Google, as they may be more comfortable with a system they have effectively mastered."
Cowan also goes on to suggest that those doing business searches will also probably stick with Google for longer, as Microsoft has a reputation in many quarters for being a consumer brand. "It seems likely that Bing is essentially targeting B2C initially, but this is quite arbitrary at this stage as the B2C market is essential for driving up volume of traffic."
However, Cowan does explain that Bing may be able to out-manoeuvre its rival in some sectors by offering what it describes as a greater range of expert sources and tapping into growing focus on non-promotional content. "Google is primarily a user-driven search engine - so user-generated sites figure highly in results. Bing claims it will direct searchers to more authoritative sources. Google has been quite slow to do this."
Chambaz is aware that it will take more than a few innovations to change market patterns. He knows that if Microsoft is to stem the tide, it will need to deliver something a little more tangible to business users, and he believes Bing can do just that. "Research indicates that half of queries on Google needed to be redefined at least once, and that only a quarter are successful," he says, suggesting that Google has failed to adapt as quickly as the Internet itself. "From a business point of view that's a relatively poor conversion rate for a company in that position.
"What Bing will do is redefine the intent of a searcher's query, and thereby deliver a greater level of confidence to users," he explains.
"Effectively, in a B2B sense, what we can offer is more warm hits to crucial landing pages."
Unsurprisingly, Google refused to comment on âother company's products', but provided a statement reiterating its commitment to product development in the field of search marketing.
"Google has always said that search is not a solved problem, and we've launched a number of new search features and products in recent months."
Whether Google has been slow to update its structure is obviously a matter that will divide opinion, but what can be safely assumed is that the search giant will react to this development.
"I would be quite surprised if they came out all guns blazing," adds Cowan.
"This would identify Bing as a direct rival - which it isn't at this stage. I believe they will find a smarter way of doing it.
"If Microsoft do try and out-spend Google, it may get hit with a strong counter-punch."
Either way, we have definitely heard the first bell.