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Bing’s biggest competitive advantage? It’s not Google

Microsoft got it so wrong with Bing at the start. Anyone who tried to search with Bing in the early days will remember that the results they got were, well, absolute rubbish. With Google forging ahead, it seemed that Microsoft’s attempt to be a serious player in the search market was doomed.

By its own admission, this was partly to do with Microsoft’s own lack of commitment, with search being seen as a sidecar to the real business engine of software licensing.

Make no mistake, things have changed. Search is now totally core at Microsoft and its commitment to it is massive and it has set its sights on grabbing a great deal of market share back from Google (and Yahoo).

Following a day spent at Microsoft’s campus in Seattle, I’d say there's a fair chance of achieving that.

Here are eight reasons:

  1. Commitment. Money talks and Bing is now seen at Microsoft as one of the major revenue generators of the future. It's spent the last five years proving Bing is viable and produces decent search results and more. But it is also core to the monetisation of other parts of the business. No more is it seen as a search box, but as powering everything in Windows and Office. It underlies the radical shift in thinking at Microsoft where it is now all about providing a service rather than producing software. The commitment is starting to pay off too - advertising revenue grew 29 per cent worldwide, helped by Windows 10 users asking Cortana more than one billion questions.
  2. Customer service. Bing is putting a huge focus on service and on working closely with advertisers. It's building up a large customer service team and customers have an allocated account manager they can contact directly for help and to give feedback. It's also shortening the distance between the customers and the coders so that problems are fixed more quickly and suggestions can be implemented more easily.
  3. Scaling up. Microsoft has the ability to scale very quickly and its potential for growth is huge. This year it recruited 400 sales people in a short number of months.
  4. Brains. You don’t get to be the biggest software company in the world for many years without garnering lots of brainpower. With many thousands of those excellent thinkers focused on how search can be integrated and improved, the rate of progress is likely to increase. Right now those brains are figuring out how to shift from keywords to customer intent and from campaign tracking to event tracking.
  5. End-user experience. Bing doesn't talk about features like a software company would – it talks about passions and how the Bing experience can ignite them. Two examples are Cortana – the virtual PA who personalises your experience and sends you timely reminders – and Bing Predicts which is an algorithm that helps you work out whether your football team is going to win and who the next president might be, based on the billions of bits of data that MS have collected. Then it serves you actionable results, based on what they believe your intent to be. Microsoft’s experience in artificial intelligence will serve well here. It has also introduced a loyalty scheme – Bing Rewards – with 10m+ members who perform 60 per cent more searches than an average Bing user.
  6. Partnerships and syndication. Mighty media companies like Forbes, Bloomberg, Amazon and AOL are throwing their lot in with Bing. Bing is also opening up 2bn bits of data for open use and are making sure that its work is compatible with most operating systems and devices including iOS-based ones. The vision is to become an ecosystem of connected devices that serve information.
  7. Integration with Windows software. This is really the trump card. In the minds of MS, the search box in a separate browser is a thing of the past. Of course you can still open up Bing in a separate window and its working on Edge, which is the new browser for Windows 10. But its vision is that the search is absolutely integral to everything else you are doing on your laptop or mobile device. Search will happen by simply right-clicking in any Office document and in Windows 10, Cortana provides search results without even being asked. The approach is that search should never be an interruption but part of every task.
  8. Google. Yes, ironically, Bing’s biggest competitor is also its biggest helper. A key strength is not being Google. No market with one dominant player is good and agencies, brands, publishers and other partners are open to using Bing and helping Bing because they don’t like Google having so much power.

Perhaps the most fundamental advantage of all is integration with Windows and Office. This has lots of advantages for the users, but the huge incentive for Microsoft to make this happen is to transform the fortunes of Bing.

Currently Bing has about 21 per cent of the USA search market (the worldwide figure is eight per cent) so two in 10 searches is done on Bing but once Windows 10 is out there (targeting 1bn devices by 2018) and search is integral to the software, there’s the potential for five out of five searches by Windows users to be done on Bing. That’s partly why Microsoft rolled out Windows 10 free of charge in the beta phase. It looks as though the days of big update launches are gone in favour of continuous improvement, but it’s as yet unclear how MS are going to charge for Windows. In the meantime it serves Bing’s purposes for the reach of Windows 10 to get wider without impediment.

With so many angles and so much commitment, Microsoft is not to be underestimated here. In the words of Rik van der Kooi, corporate vice president of Microsoft Advertising, it's going to “work it and work it”.

Microsoft doesn’t have to search too far for a fierce competitor though.

Whilst I doubt that ‘Bing it’ will ever be added to the dictionary as a verb, maybe it’s not going to matter. Because if Microsoft’s plans for Bing come to pass, search will be so ingrained in using Windows devices that it won’t need a verb of its own. Why do you need a verb for something you don’t even realise you are doing?

Diane Young is co-founder of The Drum. You can follow her on Twitter @SymmetriGal

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