By Sam Hawes
Despite some good press the general consensus seems to be that Bing is DOA, destined to the same also-ran fate as other doomed Microsoft projects like the Zune and the PocketPC. In an interview in the Times in May, Steve Ballmer, in his typical blustery style, compared the launch of Bing to the introduction of the landmark Windows versions, 3.1 and Windows 95, the implication being that Bing, like the early incarnations of Windows, is just the first step towards Microsoft’s eventual dominance in the Search wars. In his blog, Henry Blodgett excoriated Ballmer for using this comparison. Blodgett points out that Microsoft had the advantage of being a monopoly in operating systems, so the millions of consumers who upgraded weren’t examining a field of equals and picking their favorite, but following the market necessity—if not Windows (in the mid-90’s anyway), then what? In Search, the playing field is quite different: Microsoft has only an 8% market share. According to Blodgett, it’s only a matter of time before Microsoft moves on to something else and Bing languishes, forgotten and under-funded.
Thank God Google Doesn’t Charge For Upgrades
Blodgett is drawing his own specious conclusion, however. The real problem with Ballmer comparing Microsoft’s experiences with Windows and Bing isn’t myopia around the state of the market, but the profound differences between the nature of selling operating systems and search engines. The reason Windows has been so dominant is not because its superior to its competition (it isn’t, and the case of Vista it really isn’t), but because of the strong network effects inherent in the OS market. That is, the more people use Windows, the more developers create Windows-based software people want to use, thus making Windows ever more pervasive. Search engines, on the other hand, have no such social effects governing them. There is no reason that if you used Google yesterday, you can’t use Bing today. One may think that Google has cemented its lead by being integrated into browser search fields, but given Microsoft’s powerful influence, how long until you start seeing those Google search bars turning into Bing “decision engine enablers” (to use Microsoft’s marketing speak)?
Use Bing to Google!
Collegehumor.com recently posted a typically hilarious video satirizing the Bing advertising campaign, where the announcer claims that Bing is the “new, best way to Google”. The humor stems from the fact it’s impossible to even talk about Search without using the word “Google”. But this raises an important point: when early dominance means that everyone associates your company with the problem it solves (searching for what you want on the Internet) and not with the product itself (using google.com to search for what you want on the Internet) there is the threat of falling into what might be called “The Kleenex Trap”. Kleenex, the brand, has steadily lost market share since people started using the company’s name to refer to generic facial tissue (it shows how diluted the Kleenex name has become that it feels really weird to write “facial tissue”). Who’s to say something similar might not happen with Search? Within the SEM community, we tend to obsess over slight differences in results from engine to engine, but most people just use what’s convenient and effective.
If Microsoft is really as serious about Search as Ballmer claims it is, who knows what will happen? Maybe a few years from now, we really will be using Bing to google.