Microsoft has been working hard to turn Bing into a viable alternative to Google. But should online marketers even consider Bing in their strategy?
When I started out as a rookie marketer, the marketing news blogs and websites were propagating to not forget Bing. It was a viable alternative to Google. A treasure trove of untapped potential. But is it really?
Judging by the worldwide market share, Bing at first glance has the cards stacked against it. In February 2021, Google had a global market share of 92.05%, compared to Bing with a measly 2.69%. Still the number 2 position, but it’s far from nearing the size of Google. A year earlier Bing was at 2.44%, so it’s gaining some traction.
A world without Google
It’s hard to imagine today that there was a period when we didn’t have Google. The before-time. And before we knew it, the world had embraced the mighty search engine and all its related products. Many of you might still remember the day when you didn’t even have an internet connection at home. But the story of the search engine goes back farther than you might think.
In the early 90s, Archie helped users search through site file directories, although according to Steven Vaughan-Nichols at HP Enterprise, Archie was difficult to use. It needed the location of the file you were searching for. Despite its lacking user-friendliness, it paved the way for many optimizations. Veronica followed, which was provided by the University of Nevada. In 1991 Gopher enabled searching through online databases and text files. This was a great leap forward, the tool would crawl the server.
Jumpstatin, World Wide Web Worm, and the Repository-Based Software Engineering became the first search engines that incorporated robots, or spiders, to crawl web pages. A technology we are all too familiar with today, but groundbreaking at the time. A more familiar name is Lycos, who entered the scene in 1995. This was also the year that Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at Stanford, but we’ll come to that story later on.
Lycos became one of the most popular internet navigators at the time.
Lycos became one of the most popular internet navigators at the time. Lycos had a simple mission statement, namely, to become ‘the most widely used place to find information in the world.’ And it didn’t take long for the company to gain momentum. One year later the company went public in 1996, just 10 months after its release. In 1997, Lycos had indexed around 70 million web pages. This number is peanuts to the number of pages that are indexed by search engines of today, but at the time the web was just in its infancy, just by pioneers and internet connections slowly finding their way into the homes of the average consumer. In 1998, Lycos had amassed 20 million users and 500 advertisers who were using the platform generating a revenue of $15.1 million and a loss of $2.4 million. A fairly modest figure compared to the internet behemoth we see today. While we don’t hear much from Lycos today, it is still active.
In 1996, two ambitious university students thought the search engine market needed some disruption. Those two students would become the founders of Google. In 1998 Google received funding from Andy Bechtolsheim, one of the cofounders of Sun Microsystems. Through multiple rounds, the duo was able to raise approximately $1 million to kickstart their operations. One year later, they received yet another $25 million. During this time, Google was processing 500,000 search requests per day and really taking off in the year 2000, even becoming the client search engine for Yahoo. Four years later Yahoo ditched Google, which was now processing a record-breaking 200 million searches a day. Google today, processes about 70% of all search requests. This is an astronomical feat for a company that started out when the internet was just coming up. But Microsoft wouldn’t just let all the glory go to Google and had to take matters into their own hands before being trampled in the stampede that was the rise of internet unicorn Google.
Rebranding Live Search to Bing
Bing wasn’t the first engine that Microsoft released. The predecessor was known as Live Search which Microsoft was trying to move into the mainstream. In an attempt to try to boost the adoption of Live Search, Microsoft closed a deal in January 2009 with Dell to make Live Search the default search engine on its computers. Simultaneously it struck a deal with Verizon who would make Live Search the default browser on its mobile devices. This strategy of partnering between search engines and hardware suppliers was no new phenomenon as Apple had already a deal with Google dating back to 2003 and Toshiba since 2007.
In 2009 Microsoft launched the Bing search engine, first code-named Kumo, the spiritual successor to its lackluster Live Search, which kept struggling to keep pace with Google’s mighty search engine product. Steve Balmer announced the search engine at the D7 conference on the All Things Digital site. Paul Stoddart, who spoke to the Guardian, said the search engine wasn’t build to maximize clicks to push ads. The Google competitor aimed to reduce the number of clicks to lead users faster to their desired results. The rebranding of Live Search into Bing was accompanied by an allegedly, $100 million campaign to promote the improved alternative to Google. Amid the attempt to further push Bing into the search engine market, the deal between Microsoft and Verizon came back to bite the software giant as customers criticized the automatic installs of the Bing app on their devices.
Two years into its release, in 2011, Bing had a market share of 15% in the United States, making it the third-largest, just behind Yahoo who had a market share of 15.1%, and way behind Google who owned 65% of the market.
Over time, the development team at Microsoft has been pushing more features into its search engine to keep up with changing consumer behavior and innovations at competitors. In 2015, Microsoft announced it would rank mobile-friendly websites higher in search results to cater to the growing demand for smartphones. Three years later Bing launched its visual search feature, a technology that was also available at their competitor Google, which announced Google Lens during its I/O conference in 2017. The visual search feature in Bing helps users to get information on landmarks, nature, and items in pictures.
Ten years later, Microsoft rebranded Bing Ads to Microsoft Advertising. An interesting move to say the least. Rik van der Kooi, Corporate Vice President at Microsoft Advertising said in a blog post, ‘It’s a simple shift because our clients and partners already know us as Microsoft.’
In October 2020, Microsoft announced the Bing app for the XBOX gaming console. XBOX users would be able to search the web and discover content through their consoles. At first glance, the launch seems unconventional. Why would you use a search engine on your console? From a browsing experience, it seems illogical, but it’s more than just browsing images. Bing enables XBOX users to discover new games and related content, which is an easy upsell for Microsoft, further integrating the purchasing of games through their platform. One might also interpret this as an attempt to gain more market share.
Despite the struggles of Microsoft’s Search Engine and although the revenue isn’t nearly as high as Google is generating through Search, it still generates some cash flow. In the last quarter of 2020, Bing was able to generate a revenue of $1.6 billion.
The Microsoft Edge problem and the rise of Chrome
We have to address the elephant in the room, namely the browser and mobile strategy that is failing Microsoft since it had to give up its monopoly and discontinued Windows Mobile. This is relevant to our story, because Google, on the other hand, had, and still has, strong channels to push its search engine. Channels that Microsoft had lost due to monopolistic business practices and bad strategic decisions.
Google entered the browser scene in 2008 when it launched its Chrome browser. Sundar Pichai, then Vice President Product Management said on the Google Blog about the reasons for launching the Chrome browser, ‘Because we believe we can add value for users and, at the same time, help drive innovation on the web.’ Further elaborating with, ‘What we really needed was not just a browser, but also a modern platform for web pages and applications, and that’s what we set out to build.’ This showed the plans that Google had in store for its browser. At the time, Android was a small mobile operating system, and the mobile landscape, which would enable seamless browsing was just taking shape. A year into the release CEO of Microsoft Steve Ballmer was less than impressed by the browser, unbeknownst to what would be coming his way.
Ballmer spoke to Techcrunch back in 2009, where he was still convinced that Safari and Chrome didn’t pose a threat. When asked how he viewed the browser market Ballmer said, ‘The fact that there’s a lot of competitors probably is to our advantage. Yeah, we’re right now about 74 percent overall with the browser market, roughly speaking. But we’re having to compete like heck with IE 8, with great new features.’ Further saying, ‘The one thing that’s unclear is what’s the economic play for anybody else competing with us at the browser level.’ In Ballmer’s defense, at the time the smartphone market was just taking shape and few would have anticipated the societal and technological impact these devices would have. Still, Microsoft was able to maintain market dominance up to February 2016, when Google Chrome became the dominant browser.
We can trace back the trail of problems to 2010 when Microsoft lost an antitrust case initiated by the European Commission where it was forced to include a competitor browser during the setup of the Windows operating system when the customer installed it for the first time. The user would be able to switch between a set of browsers, like Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, and Opera.
In an attempt to counter Chrome’s rise, Microsoft released two ad campaigns, claiming that its Edge browser was 48 percent faster than its rival Chrome. In the same year, Chrome became 10 and was the leading force in the browsing market and was stepping up its game with ad agency Virtue, to celebrate the occasion. Google launched the ‘Don’t be a browser campaign’, emphasizing how users were interacting with the product. The Verge noted that Chrome was shaping to become a platform, pushing the envelope for new browsing technology.
Should marketers care?
But in the end, the question that remains, should online marketers care and adopt Bing within their marketing strategy? That’s not an easy question to answer. The obvious one is what market share does Bing hold in your region? In the United States, it might be a viable option to optimize for both platforms and consider running ads. But the dominance of Google cannot be understated and while Microsoft is working hard to push Bing into the mainstream, seamlessly integrating it into their products, it’s still a minor player on the world stage.
Over the years I thought that Bing would be a valuable addition to the marketing mix, but time and time again as I was proven wrong. Marketing blogs kept pushing to not ignore Bing, it was an untapped opportunity just waiting to be cracked open. In the end, it feels like there’s little to no return in many cases. The traffic contribution is almost non-existent compared to the far reaches of Google, which has created such a strong ecosystem around its product that every consumer, every business at some point in time will use the service. And you, as an online marketer need to focus on that moment. Not wasting efforts in a search engine that will most likely never thrive. Maybe, in the distant future, even Google might be overtaken by an unexpected contender. But today, Bing, has yet to prove itself.