Microsoft Corp. is rolling out a redesigned search site in the coming days and hopes it will lure more web surfers than the two most recent incarnations, Live Search and MSN Search.
The new site, Bing, adds touches intended to make everyday web searching a little less haphazard. Bing also tries to make it easier for people to buy items and products, book travel and find credible health information.
History has not been kind to even the best search innovators. Many companies, including Amazon.com Inc. and IAC/InterActiveCorp., and startups like Hakia, ChaCha and Cuil have tried to improve on the basic "10 blue links" format of search results, but Google Inc. has remained unstoppable.
Microsoft's last effort, Live Search, failed to catch on partly because the software maker didn't do much to promote it. Marketing is no guarantee of success — IAC heavily advertised makeovers of Ask.com — but this time, Microsoft appears to be taking no chances. Ad Age reported Microsoft plans to spend as much as $100 million on advertising Bing.
Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft has been stuck in third place behind Google and Yahoo Inc. for years. Its share of U.S. search queries was 8.2 percent in April, according to the research group comScore Inc. Google was used for 64.2 per cent of queries, and Yahoo's share totalled 20.4 per cent.
The numbers are important. Google's healthy profits are tied to its search dominance, because companies will pay more to reach a wider audience when they place ads alongside search results. Microsoft, by contrast, posted a quarterly loss in its online advertising business.
"We want to do better," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said Thursday at The Wall Street Journal's D: All Things Digital conference in Carlsbad, Calif.
"There are times in our history where we've felt a little bit like Rocky," he continued, referring to the fictional underdog boxer. "It takes persistence in this stuff. You don't always get things right."
Name 'easy to say'
When asked why Microsoft chose "Bing," he said, "The name is short, it's easy to say, it works globally."
To mount a credible challenge to Google, Microsoft tried taking over Yahoo last year. But after Yahoo rebuffed its $47.5-billion offer, Microsoft turned its attention to improving its own Live Search.
Ballmer reiterated Thursday that Microsoft is still interested in a search partnership with Yahoo, and not an outright acquisition, but he didn't disclose any new details.
Some of Bing's features showed up on a Microsoft blog in March, when the new site was known as "Kumo."
The most obvious difference is a bar of links running down the left-hand side of Bing search results pages. Some searches — especially ones for celebrities or travel destinations — yield links to help narrow results into categories. For pro athletes, it might offer links for statistics and highlights. For Thailand, categories include weather and real estate.
Bing also lists related search terms on the left, not at the bottom of the page like Google does. It keeps track of recent searches and gives people a way to e-mail links from that search history or post them on Facebook.
Ease of shopping offered
For some types of queries, Microsoft is positioning Bing as a destination rather than a quick gateway to other sites. For airfare searches, Bing produces results from Farecast, a travel-comparison startup Microsoft acquired last year.
Shopping with Bing can yield an Amazon.com-like experience, with ways to narrow results by price, brand and the availability of free shipping, without leaving the search page.
Bing also tries to guide searchers to trustworthy medical information. Type in "chicken pox" or "tendinitis," and the first result is a Mayo Clinic article. (Google's top result for chicken pox comes from kidshealth.org; for tendinitis, it shows a Wikipedia link.)
Forrester analyst Shar VanBoskirk said Bing won't bite into Google's search share because the Google habit is too hard to break. But people who have been using Yahoo as a secondary "information portal" may switch to Bing, she said.
"Yahoo won't have anything to make it stand out in comparison to either of the two other experiences," she said.
To keep up with its rivals, Yahoo has been tweaking its search results as well, to include different types of information depending on the query. For instance, it would show photos in response to searches for landmarks or dossier-style listings for people.
Prabhakar Raghavan, head of Yahoo's search strategy, said he was "completely baffled" by the claim that Bing "provides something we don't provide."
"It could be that people are reacting to the form and presentation, which is different, as opposed to the substance and information."
Analysts weigh in
Microsoft isn't banking on beating Google, said Mike Nichols, a general manager in the search group. But Microsoft does want to transform its also-ran search image.
"We want to capture a unique position in consumers' minds. They need to know why is it that they should use this product," Nichols said in an interview.
Matt Rosoff, an analyst for the research group Directions on Microsoft, praised the new features and said an extensive ad campaign gives Microsoft a chance to increase its share.
But "I have to wonder," he said, "whether users are really crying out for a new search engine."