Foley on Microsoft

Bing vs. Googliath?

Microsoft has given up trying to out-Google Google and is trying instead to carve out a new search niche.

Anyone still hoping that Microsoft will throw in the search towel and direct its billions in cash reserves toward the enterprise should abandon those delusions. Microsoft, for better or worse, is staying the course in its effort to dominate the search business. In fact, it's willing to increase its share at all cost.

Microsoft's resolve only increased when Google decided last year to launch its alternative to Windows, Chrome OS -- a search box sitting atop Linux steroids. The jury's still out on Chrome OS, now in beta. In the meantime, Google continues its efforts to become prevalent on netbooks and other new client devices.

But the search race isn't the simple Bing vs. Googliath sweepstakes many assume it to be. Microsoft officials admit the one and only real competitor in this space is Google. In fact, Microsoft has given up trying to out-Google Google. Instead, it's attempting to carve out a new search niche with what it calls a "decision engine."

When Microsoft launched Bing 1.0 last year and described it as a decision, rather than search, engine, many -- including yours truly -- scoffed. But as the 'Softies roll out more and more Bing features, it's increasingly apparent that Redmond didn't create Bing to take on Google head-to-head.

Occasionally, Microsoft search execs will publicly admit that Bing isn't being optimized for general, informational queries. Afterall, Microsoft isn't attempting to index all of the world's information, like Google is. Microsoft is, however, attempting to index a select segment of that information, specifically in categories like travel, shopping, health and celebrity news. Sure, you can Bing to find articles in academic journals; white papers on global warming; and Redmond magazine articles. The point is, Microsoft's focus isn't on making these general queries easier, faster or "better" than they are on Google.

If you're still doubtful of my premise, check out this list of the top 10 "decisions" that searchers made using Bing (based on Microsoft's internal research from late 2009):

  • What to wear based on weather
  • Which directions to take
  • Where to eat
  • What to do based on weather
  • Computers and electronics
  • Which airline to choose
  • Home appliances, decor, accessories
  • Gift ideas
  • Which movies to see
  • Which medicine to take

Who's doing these queries? Bing's fastest-growing demographics are the 18-to-24 and 25-to-34 age groups. These people want more celebrity gossip, more YouTube videos, more Tweets from Ashton Kutcher, more Facebook integration. They may be -- but aren't usually -- the ones looking for statistics on Darfur or details on the Large Hadron Collider.

Have you seen Microsoft's much-touted Visual Search technology? (It's the one that lets you browse dog breeds or U.S. presidents via thumbnail images, rather than textual lists.) Or the latest iteration of Bing Maps -- which use Microsoft's PhotoSynth photo-stitching and Silverlight technologies to create incredibly detailed street-side and birds-eye views of various geographic locations? These kinds of search enhancements are demo-friendly examples of Microsoft's decision -- no pun intended -- to focus on the image-obsessed demographic that's fueling Bing's growth.

I'm not ready to posit that Microsoft is dumbing-down Bing to appeal to folks who don't want to read anything longer than 140 characters. But Microsoft's search priorities do make me leery of using Bing for routine searching. If I want to do comparison shopping for digital cameras, I'd opt for Bing over Google. If I want to find the latest information on a class-action lawsuit, I'd Google it.

Some may argue that Microsoft's following a wise course. With Google owning 70 percent of the search market, it would be foolhardy for the 'Softies, with 10 percent -- on a good day -- to try to overturn the search monopoly by taking it head-on. And maybe Microsoft will carve out a lucrative search niche by picking the low-hanging fruit and targeting users who rely on their search engines for those kinds of queries. All I know is I'm still Googling it more than I'm Binging it. What about you?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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