Let’s begin this article with my bias; I use Google but I genuinely appreciate Bing. When Bing first launched it was, in no uncertain terms, a pretty lackluster search engine when one compared it to the gorilla in the room.

But as our good friend Jeremiah Andrick (then a Program Manager on the Bing team) said at the time when asked why it was inferior after so long in development, “Do you know how hard it is to build a search engine? Give it some time.”

Flash forward a few years, give them some of that requested time to collect user data, grab some market share, and tweak their algorithms, and it turns out he was right.

As an SEO, I still use Google and can’t see that changing anytime soon. After all, I’ve spent so much time on Google that I’ve figured out how to search it for complex information.

Honestly, clients and website owners are more concerned with how much traffic they’re getting than how great an alternative search engine might be technologically. Heck, if we were more concerned about technology than results Ask would likely still be relevant.

A major advantage that Bing has over an engine like Ask however is that their market reach surpasses that of even Google. If we consider Microsoft’s reach onto the desktop and through the Xbox console, they have access to a large percentage of searchers – they just haven’t been able to win their hearts and minds … yet.

Which is exactly why they’ve launched the Bing In On challenge (a wise marketing move to be sure). In this challenge they display Google and Bing search results side-by-side with all the branding stripped out and allow users to vote for their preferred set of results based purely on merit.

As far as I’m concerned however, this challenge doesn’t fully paint the picture of Bing’s growing strengths in the search realm (and may not depending on your search preferences), so before we get into that I want to point out a couple of the major moves that Bing’s making that may have passed unnoticed by many (for now) because it’s … well … Bing.

Universal & Social Positioning Preferences

Regular readers of Search Engine Watch may recall Nathan Safran’s article from last month titled, “Searchers Don’t Want Social in the SERPs, Prefer Bing’s layout to Google’s”. This article discussed the difference in the current layout of a SERP page after stripping out the brand and with the universal and social results areas clearly indicated.

I highly recommend reading the article for the full picture, but the basic consensus was that 63 percent of those tested preferred Bing’s layout related to social search (though not universal). Those stats broke down as:

  • 36 percent strongly preferred Bing
  • 27 percent somewhat preferred Bing
  • 19 percent strongly preferred Google
  • 18 percent somewhat preferred Google

The breakdown on universal search was a bit different, with Google taking 53 percent, Bing 31 percent, and 16 percent of those tested having no preference.

If we look at this data alone one can infer (or at least I did) that if a user has no opinion on a search engine going in, they are likely not to be heavily swayed by universal search presentation but may be swayed by social presentation due to the stronger preference recorded in the study. This all depends on how you’re searching and why but overall – I’d chalk this down as win for Bing. If only they had the chance to get in front of users.

Further, if one believes as I do that users can be taught to appreciate having their social experience integrated into their search results (more on that later), then a case could be made for the fact that more than integrated images and products, users will gravitate to results that include information on what their friends think and like.

Facebook Integration

It’s important again to point out my bias. When Bing started integrating Facebook data in their search results back in May I got excited (and after 12 years of doing this … that takes a lot). The reason I got excited by this move was that they were doing what Google couldn’t and that’s integrate a large-scale “Friends” association into the results users are getting in their search results.

We all know about Google+ and we have likely all noticed the +1 button and how it can influence the way Google displays sites with the “x people +1’d this” below the result. The problem is, the people whose opinions I trust the most over a wide array of topics don’t spend a lot of time on Google+ or +1’ing things.

I live in Victoria, BC and when I enter “restaurants victoria bc” not one of the results has any type of indication as to whether people I know like any restaurants there. Perform the same search on Bing and because they use Facebook to pull such data, I get two listings with a little “Thumbs Up” to the left of the result which, if I hover over it, will show me which Facebook friends liked it.

I did the same for “las vegas hotels”. Google gave me zero personal recommendations, Bing again gave me two sites with recommendations from people I know.

This may seem simple, but it could well be one of the most powerful features of all the engines. Consider again my search for a hotel. I can go to Expedia or the such and get their reviews, I can also get the reviews of a bunch of people I don’t know who may have different needs that I do … or I can go to Bing and see which hotels people like me prefer.

I trust my friend Jim Hedger because I know him and I also know that he likes to stay in nice hotels but is as budget conscious as I am. I know that if he likes a hotel, it’s very likely to be close to something I would like at a price I’m willing to pay. At the very least I know it’s worth clicking through to for more information.

Similarly, I know that my friend David Kong here in Victoria is health conscious but in what I’d deem to be a “normal” way. I know that when he gives a Like to a health site, I can trust his opinion and am likely to click through based on this recommendation.

Essentially, Bing has done what Google has (thus far) been unable to do: provide a social integration based on a large-scale network of interconnected people.

I know that this is a huge point in their favor and I expect to see more and more Facebook integration into Bing results. And until Google can convince my grandmother, my dad and the next door neighbor to get a Google+ profile and start +1ing things, Bing will have a large advantage on this playing field.

So, Bing It On!

But all of this is irrelevant if either of two conditions exist:

  • Bing’s search results are poor
  • Bing can’t pick up some additional market share

After all, what good are recommendations if I don’t search on an engine or worse, if I do and get poor results and leave frustrated.

Enter Bing’s Bing It On challenge. Bing has created a page that allows the user to search and then displays, side-by-side, the results from both Bing and Google with all the branding stripped out and asks you to vote as to which you prefer (or a Draw if you consider them equal). After five queries they show you the results.

I should note before you give it a try, the results don’t include the above-mentioned social integrations, it’s just a test of the pure results.

When I tested it personally I got the following results from a purposely varied query set:

  • hotels las vegas (selected result based on the display of rating) – Bing
  • digital projector (selected results based on quick jump to shopping and review sites near the top) – Bing
  • buy organic coffee (selected result based on ease of accessing shopping on a buy phrase) – Bing
  • define quizzical (selected result based on layout of definition) – Google
  • leonardo da vinci (selected result based on image with the Wikipedia listing and layout of page) – Bing

This was the second time I’d done a search on the Bing It On system but I didn’t record the “why” the first time. In the first test I ended up with 2 Bing, 2 draws and 1 Google. When I was recording my reasons the second time I made myself select a preference and thus there were no draws.

As someone who uses search engines all day I couldn’t help but worry that I’d skewed the results by simply knowing the layouts. I tried not to but some things one can’t help.

So for the purpose of this article I decided to grab my laptop and head outside into the real world and watched others search and asked why they made the selections they did. The sample set was admittedly small (seven people) but their experience seems to match Bing’s claims.

Of the seven people I watched searching, five selected Bing as their search engine of preference based purely on the results. Not bad, Bing.

The most common reasons for the preference based on my asking during each query were:

  • Not sure, just liked it.
  • Preferred location of shopping results (on 1440 x 900 resolution)
  • Better images
  • Better results

After that the reasons were pretty scattered, including one person who preferred the inclusion of video when searching “porn” on Bing. Personally and as a parent I have a word of advice for Bing … it’s easy enough to get access to the stuff – you might want to address that.

Bing: The Choice of a New (Search) Generation?

Bing has a huge problem. I’ve never heard anyone say they’re going to “Bing something” when they need information. You get into an argument in a pub, you’ll “Google it” to settle the debate.

While people may prefer Bing results in a blind test, will those five people who preferred Bing in my sample now head home and start using it? Probably not – old patterns are hard to break. Ask Google, they developed a great social network but people kept using Facebook because old habits die hard.

What this does mean, however, is that Google needs to tread very carefully. The biggest threat to Google right now is that if they come up with either a format people don’t like or a results set that is completely unsatisfactory – even for a short while –users may jump to Bing as a backup. If they do, and Bing keeps up a results set people seem to prefer, Google could very well lose users.

In addition, the potential for further integration of Facebook data into Bing and additional integration of Bing results/advertising into Facebook (I have no reason to know this will happen but it wouldn’t surprise me at all with some of the possible moves that could be made by Microsoft later this year) they could grab both market share and (more importantly) advertising revenue from Google.