Microsoft's modest Bing tinkerers on Google trip
Maps, mobile and Dell help
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.
OK, Windows Mobile, you can have Bing, too
Refinements to this basic model in the next six months will include development of what Microsoft calls ecards for specific films that will pull in reviews, plus information on buying or renting. Microsoft is dabbling with semantic understanding, so if you ask Bing a question like "two counties that border Mexico?" Bing will give you a Wiki answer. Also coming are comparisons, so if you search a sports team, for example, Bing will present structured data such as runs scored, who scored them, and other comparative data. Some kind of travel service is also in the pipeline that compares destinations side-by-side on one page.
"It's something we are continually evolving," Nadella told us.
"We are looking at where we can add the maximum value, and sometimes it's not adding a lot of complexity. It's where people are only navigating to a company's web site to find a customer service number — what if we make that available on an ecard"?
Microsoft reckons Bing's number of manual clicks is already starting to decline because its algorithms are preempting people's intentions and offering good suggestions. Also, happily for advertisers — and Microsoft's plans — people are clicking on ads.
Based on the last 12 months, the Bing team has decided that mobile will be a big differentiator in the coming years, as well. Microsoft has released Bing search for the Blackberry and Apple's iPhone with a version for Google's Android coming imminently. Microsoft claims 4.3 million US downloads for Bing on the iPhone in the six months since its release. Bing is also on Windows Mobile, but we're talking about platforms people actually want.
"In the last year we became more focused on mobile — building mobile on high-volume platforms," Nadella said.
Bing might be new, and hoping to offer a better search experience than Google, but it has been some tried-and-tested PC-partnering techniques that have helped Bing in its thirsty-man-in-the-desert crawl towards the oasis of market share. PC buddies Dell — whose servers drive Bing — and HP have been Microsoft's biggest partners on the PC toolbar.
Last month archrival Opera Software made a deal with Microsoft to add Bing as one of the browser's default search options with Google, Yahoo!, Amazon, Wikipedia, eBay, and Shopping.com. Opera is small on the global stage, but has strong regional use.
Number-two browser Firefox doesn't yet offer that option, and when asked if Microsoft were in talks with Mozilla, Nadella said simply that such an deal is "always a possibility". He claimed "good usage" from Firefox users despite not being on the list of search providers in a browser where Google's the default.
Microsoft, meanwhile, has ruled out one quick fix to growth - biting off geographic regions and driving out Google to surround the giant in the US. Opera, for example, counters its 2.4 per cent worldwide share by pointing to 43 per cent and 36 per cent share in Russia and the Ukraine. Nadella made it clear: Bing's needs to tackle Google head on in the homeland if Bing's to make any legitimate claim of real progress.
This unreconstructed view will not go down well with open-sourcers and those who've recognized there are big and legitimate markets outside the US.
Perhaps the US focus has more to do with the difficulty and cost involved in taking Bing abroad. Even in the UK, with it (theoretical) linguistic and cultural overlap, things are proving tough, Nadella admitted.
The main differences is in verticals, such as entertainment and travel, that need to be expanded for cultural relevance and "best local experience". Information on the Royal Family and London restaurants has been added, but more rollouts and improvements to relevance are planned.
Of course, Google is unlikely to sit idly by through all of this. Privately, Googlers admit they are scared of Microsoft — and they should be, given it's track record of coming from behind against Novell, Palm, and Sony in operating systems, devices, and games over the years.
While Microsoft tinkered with Bing during the past 12 months, Google has been busy with its own search-engine mods. And, just like Microsoft, the supposedly — in Silicon Valley, at least — infallible Google has also screwed up.
It has redesigned its news home page with something that's a major departure and still doesn't quite feel or look right. Also, it has flirted with the option of Bing-like graphics on its trademark plain home page — a move that jarred users and forced a quick turnabout.
Microsoft demurs on the subject of how far Bing has affected Google's decisions during the last year. Pushed by press at this week's event, though, Nadella conceded: "When you're on 12 points of share it's great to see someone with dominant position making changes that seem not as natural."
Finally, possibly, a flash of the aggressive spirit we knew Microsoft had. ®