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Microsoft's modest Bing tinkerers on Google trip

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Ex-Walmart man and current Microsoftie Kevin Turner might have peppered partners with anti-Google talking points this week, but the team that's building Redmond's challenger Bing aren't so gung-ho.

In fact, they're being uncharacteristically soft-spoken — for Microsoft — about their hopes for the future and dreams of changing desktop and mobile search to win a large and loyal fan base.

It pays to be patient.

A year after Bing's launch, and with a $100m ad campaign underway and billions of additional R&D cash poured into building Bing's search and ads engines, Microsoft has advanced four percentage points in the search wars to claim 12.7 per cent of the US field.

That's progress of a sort: Windows Live was becalmed at eight per cent.

Still, while Google's numbers have fluctuated, the Chocolate Factory still holds steady on sixty-two per cent, with Yahoo! second at 18.9 per cent, according to comScore.

Also, what Microsoft calls "astronomical" growth is coming from existing Live.com users — not Google converts. And, no, Microsoft's still not making money off Bing ads while Google's moneymaker shows no signs of slowing down.

Satya Nadella, senior vice president of Microsoft's online services division, stuck to the ever-so-humble script written for the Bing play this week during a six-month update event that roughly coincided with the search engine's one-year anniversary. "At this point we are a low double-digit player and we just want to get there. Google is way, way ahead of us," Nadella said.

It's been a mixed first year for Bing. Month-on-month gains have been slow, but at least consistent.

Experimentation has been in real time, with mistakes played out in public as Microsoft has worked to find and fine-tune a successful formula by combing though Bing's log data.

There have been embarrassing mistakes along the way: the 30-second video thumbnail playback feature that gave nervous teens and unwitting minors an eyeful of micro-sized porn minus the web filter. The fact that such a consequence of a major feature designed to make search better wasn't anticipated during the development phase was a jaw dropper.

Elsewhere, it's been back to the drawing board. Microsoft canned cashback, with which it bribed users to shop online using Bing by paying them for purchases.

Cashback developed a loyal following, Nadella told The Reg this week (no kidding!) but proved an expensive and inefficient way to capture small market-share points. Lessons learned from cashback are shaping the Bing Rewards program that's in pilot now, Nadella told us.

The Silverlight-powered Visual Search that wowed the web in its beta debut last September is also undergoing a "foundational redesign" Nadella said. Visual Search was supposed to combine queries with images, presenting graphics with liquid fades and flow. You can get an idea of what Microsoft was thinking here.

"How do you take visual search and search integration to make it more fluid is something we learned we need to do to increase engagement," Nadella said.

A radical overhaul is coming for Bing maps, too. In a couple of weeks Microsoft will preview maps that do away with the standard atlas look and tiled web approach, for something that strips out visual details and uses a compressed color pallet and Zune-like large fonts.

The biggest learning experience during the last year, Nadella claimed, has been how to keep the Bing interface and experience consistent and not to lose people by breaking design while consolidating more data from different but related sources on a single return page.

"We want to have a consistent design aesthetic that's rich, consistent, and engaging," Nadella said.

According to Nadella, the key to winning both desktop and mobile fans are features that return relevant information in a small space with fewer follow-on clicks.

In the last year, Microsoft has combed Bing's logs to find what people are commonly searching for and how easy searches are. The result is a structured approach for returns in what Microsoft calls the "verticals" of shopping, travel, entertainment, universities, weather, TV, and other categories. Search for, say, New York City, and Bing will pull weather, games, entertainment, local news, and travel information from public sources and present it to you portal style so you don't need to keep digging.

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