The future of search: could Bing really topple Google?

Google has quietly dictated the way we search since its inception. But ad advertisers, agencies and even consumers grow dissatisfied with the state of its core offering, does Bing have the chance to scoop a significant portion of its business?

A panel of search experts discussed the topic at The Drum’s Search Breakfast, agreeing that Google Search was not performing as well as advertisers would like it to. While Alphabet’s tech giant continues to innovate in a number of verticals (hardware, health and energy to name but a few) many in marketing feel the development of its search business has stalled.

Jim Brigden, the non-executive chair at Brainlabs, believes Google’s ability to produce hyper-relevant search results hasn’t “moved as quickly as it should”. He cites an anecdotal experiment he conducted with seven agency heads of search – all of differing demographics and with differing tastes and interests – to prove that the engine still serves the same results and ads to vast swathes of consumers with no distinguishing personalisation.

“The horror for me was I was shown an Arsenal shirt – and anyone who knows me knows I'm a huge Spurs fan,” he said. “Google knows all of our search history and our customer interests, so the results should be a lot better. I think they're doing too much fancy engineering work and I think they're forgetting about the relevance to the consumer, and actually working hard at that.”

This impatience is felt by John Brasington, head of search at Pi Datametrics. His theory as to why a typical search page still feels “busy” is rooted in Google’s apathy to improve the experience.

“In an ideal world there would be one result from Google [when you searched], because they know so much about you and it would know exactly what you needed,” he explained. “But it just gives you everything because It's easier to give everybody everything than it is to predict.”

He added that Brigden’s Arsenal shirt ad was probably served because Arsenal could easily bid on the platform – not because it had misunderstood his loyalties.

Jenny Kirby, managing partner of digital services at Group M, is also frustrated with Google’s continued monopoly in search; put bluntly, she believes “they have to do bugger all, really, and still have a massive share of our budget”. But, she believes one company could change that: Bing.

Microsoft’s search engine has arguably struggled to garner consumer love. It is still dwarfed by Google in terms of both search queries (Bing served 31.9% of organic searches in 2016 while Google served 64%) and paid search revenues (Microsoft’s portfolio pulled in $6.1bn in ad revenues in 2017 compared to Google’s $73.8bn). However, Kirby believes, Bing’s integration with Amazon Alexa could improve its market position.

“I'm really excited about what Bing are going to do now they have their audience prepped,” she said. “Google knows so much about all of us and Bing knows slightly less, but their results are slightly better. I'm really, really excited about there being a challenger to Google, who will drive Google's interest in better learning.”

Brigden is also a fan, namely because “the cost is lower than Google and conversion rates are better”. Yet he worries that Bing’s failure to market itself to consumers as a viable search alternative could hinder its progress. Agency heads tell him it’s still a “slightly older, less tech savvy audience that use Bing”, so although he will back its corner, he worries about the attraction of its user base to advertisers.

The future of voice

It may also be too early to bank on Bing’s success on the back of voice. The panel agreed that although the aural platform is showing potential, consumers are still hesitant to search and purchase without a screen – a theory backed by Accenture’s recent research. The consultancy found that those using tech such as Siri or Alexa have trust issues with their voice assistants, with one in five people ‘avoiding’ Alexa and Siri at home.

Brigden noted that voice technology still isn’t where brands need it to be (“[voice assistants] work okay, but they don't work perfectly”) and Kirby added that other than Amazon, the only transactional activity currently available to UK customers is the ability to buy Virgin Train tickets.

“I think voice is probably about eight years away from being as part of our lives as mobile,” she said.

“You can see users buying the things you’d buy with an Amazon Dash button – bits and bobs, items that are low cost,” added Paul Norris, senior strategist and head of London operations at Epiphany. “But realistically, are you going to buy an item of higher cost than those? Are consumers going to buy a car without seeing it? Probably not.”

Investment from marketers will ultimately fuel the development and efficacy of voice as a platform. Yet that investment may not be forthcoming until advertisers are given what they need: data.

The panel and their clients are still perturbed by the lack of measurability when it comes to voice search. It’s a factor that, Brigden noted, has led many brands to view the platform as a “complementary tactic”, at least for now, and indirectly hinders the potential for Bing to topple Google.

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