Microsoft Faces Bing Challenge

Mike Nichols of MicrosoftWill people develop a habit for pinging Bing? Microsoft's clean-looking "decision engine," unveiled by CEO Steve Ballmer Thursday, has been touted as offering up better query results tied to amazing image and video search. The intelligent search tools and brand will roll out during the coming days, with full deployment by June 3.

Despite the hoopla surrounding Bing, some believe the biggest challenge for Microsoft in rolling out its new search engine and brand will become retraining consumer behavior. It will mean educating people on a new way to search for information that's different from Google, Yahoo, WolframAlpha and smaller niche engines.

The technology moves beyond elementary search into intuitive tools, focusing initially on making a purchase decision, planning a trip, researching a health condition or finding a local business. The results aim to provide a more powerful kind of search service. "About 75% of the actions someone takes when they receive a search result page would indicate they didn't get the correct information, so they either click back or retype their query," says Mike Nichols, GM of search at Microsoft. "Aside from improving algorithms, we have tried to focus on categorizing information and developing important utilities to help users traverse the site better."



Categorizing information allows the search engine to group the most relevant information. Similar to walking into a grocery store and seeing pasteurized, rice and soy milk stocked side-by-side on the shelf, Bing organizes keywords, topics and items into groups such as restaurants and hotels.

The brand charts a new course for Microsoft, Nichols says. He doesn't deny that Microsoft faces challenges changing consumer behavior. People now rely on search engines to make decisions. "Search engines are more about habit, rather than a conscious decision," he says. 'Understanding where people succeed and fail when using search allowed us to realize all the unmet needs. Whether people realize it or not, it's our job as marketers to make sure they understand the best way to use a search engine."

Branding search has been somewhat of a sore spot for Microsoft. Forrester Research Principal Analyst Shar VanBoskirk agrees that Microsoft will need patience to slowly introduce the new search engine and brand to a market that has habitually embraced Google's interface. "If the search engine performs better than other search engines it will create new habits for users," she says. "The experience will drive habit. It will start with the one user finding that it works better for them, and then through word of mouth, the experience will drive others to the engine."

VanBoskirk describes the search engine as a "concierge," filtering out garbage that most search engines typically leave in to create a "social index." Bing seems less about algorithms and more about common expectations. Most people search on "package tracking" to track a shipment of ordered goods. A typical search engine would return related articles or information, but Microsoft's new engine allows consumers to enter the tracking code for the package.

Video and image search has been the most impressive improvements. The ability to hover over an image or link to see the content on the connected page will prove valuable. "Microsoft is doing a lot to show improvements in multimedia," says David Berkowitz, director of emerging media and client strategy at 360i. "This is where you will see the most notable changes and clear-cut difference."

The new brand will include Microsoft's mapping platform, Virtual Earth, which it will rebrand as Bing Maps for Enterprise. Technology from Microsoft's April 2008 acquisition of Farecast is part of Bing Travel. Microsoft's cash-back program -- dubbed Bing Cashback, with more than 850 merchants and more than 17 million products available -- will integrate the Bing Shopping experience.

As for the advertising campaign promised to roll out with the new search engine, Berkowitz says, Microsoft will need to do a lot to get consumers excited. The company has seen a couple of hits and misses lately. The Jerry Seinfeld campaign had a lot of people scratching their heads. The price-conscious PC vs. Mac ads demonstrate more finesse.

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