When Microsoft first launched Bing, it was sort of a joke. But at least a joke gets repeated. After the initial hype, a lot of people just forgot about it. Now Bing is getting a second chance to make a first impression: It is integrated into the desktop search in Windows 8.1, and Apple has chosen it as the Web search tool for Siri, the iPhone's virtual assistant.
Yes, it's time to take the No. 2 search engine seriously.
Bing has been inching up lately, but it's an imperceptibly slow crawl. Last month, its share of core searches was 17.4 percent, said ComScore, up from 15.4 percent at the same time last year. Compared to Yahoo's 11.9 percent share — a figure that has been going down as steadily as Bing's has been rising — that's brag-worthy. But it's still a far cry from Google's 66.7 percent — a number that was exactly the same a year ago.
Stealing audience from Yahoo has been easy for Microsoft — winning over people who use Google has been harder, says Danny Sullivan, who, as founder of Search Engine Land, is one of the leading authorities on search engines.
"We turn to a search engine in the way we turn to a best friend," he explained. The more advice you seek, and the more consistently good answers you get, the deeper the friendship grows and the less likely you are to seek outside opinions. "When someone else comes up and says, 'I've got some advice,' your response is, 'Who the heck is this?'"
Sullivan added, "You need Google to be letting you down in order to switch to Bing … and then Bing has to be really good."
As it happens, Bing is pretty good by most accounts.
When I took the Bing It On challenge — five searches that yield two sets of results, which you rate for helpfulness — Bing won by a nose. The real revelation is how close everything is, and how similar the basic search experience can be. (Go ahead, see for yourself.)
The Siri switch
Before Apple brought Bing into Siri, Apple executives "switched to Bing to test quality," said Microsoft's Derrick Connell, corporate vice president for Bing. "They went through a lot of internal measurement to test our judgment." (Apple PR did not have a comment about the company's Bing testing, but also didn't refute Microsoft.)
Apple isn't going whole-hog with Bing just yet. The default search engine for the Safari browser is still Google. Sullivan says that, after the Apple Maps meltdown, the iPhone maker is likely to ease into this with more care.
"If they shift Safari search over to Bing, people probably would be like, 'What is this? This isn't as good as Google. You're doing the whole Maps thing again!' But with Siri, they have the opportunity to throw Bing into the mix." When you do Web searches in Siri in iOS 7, you won't see any branding — you may not even know it's Bing.
In spite of that, Sullivan says that this is potentially a chance for Bing to gain new users. "It won't cause Google to plunge overnight, but it's an inroad for Microsoft where they're not just pulling away users from Yahoo."
Windows — now with moreBing
Potentially a bigger deal for Bing is its new presence inside of Windows. Before, when you searched inside of Windows 8, you were presented with local apps and files. Now, with Windows 8.1, you get a Bing-powered search that incorporates not just what's on your hard drive but all kinds of files out on the Web.
The trick here, says Connell, was keeping results relevant. If users type "N-E-T…" they probably want the Netflix app. If they type "T-O-R-N-A…" they may be looking for the latest extreme weather news. Just like when you search the Web, over time the system applies dynamic ranking to your results, based on your prior clicks.
But Bing isn't just providing data here. Through a novel collaboration with the Windows team, the search group provides software components, so the results page itself, though it lives on the computer, can be updated over the Internet. A hallmark of this approach are the "hero" pages — when you search for certain people, places or things ("Bill Gates" shown above) you get a side-scrolling page of local files, streaming media, news and background information.
Perhaps even cooler in the long run is a tool for developers of apps like Netflix and Hulu to allow the searches of their online catalogs. So when you search for "Dr. Who," you not only see your own extensive collection of digital Dr. Who memorabilia, but you see all of the episodes available to you from your subscription services. The line between what's on your computer and what's out in the ether gets blurrier and blurrier.
Although Microsoft boasted last month that over 100 million Windows 8 licenses had been sold worldwide — and despite the obvious usefulness of the Bing integration into Windows 8.1 — Sullivan is skeptical that it will cause a significant shift in the search engine balance of power.
"The Apple opportunity is huge but the Windows opportunity is probably no big deal," he said. Microsoft has repeatedly attempted to do "something awesome with search," said Sullivan, but "however they bake it in, it does not help its market share."
For Connell and the Bing team, both the Apple and Windows deals are opportunities for Bing to get even better relatively quickly.
With both, "we also get new kinds of queries," he said. "The ability to continue to learn what's relevant through clicks and queries makes our platform stronger, strengthened by both the volume and the types of queries."
And the team hopes that the new exposure will help build the Bing audience. "We've come a long way and still have a lot of work to do, but it's been great," he said, adding that, when the ComScore numbers come out, and Bing inches up a teeny tiny bit, "we celebrate every month. Like a startup, every month we just keep going at it."