I had the chance to chat with Stefan Weitz recently about where Microsoft wanted to take Bing. It's hard not to get swept up in Weitz' evangelism. Microsoft is trying to do some very impressive things with search: parse the ambiguity out of our language; stitch together disparate fragments of content into a whole that's useful to the user; and present all this in a results format that informs and assists without requiring extensive tweaking on the part of the user.
We all love to hate the evil empire, but let's be fair. Microsoft has humbled itself dramatically, and the company is sincerely trying to do a good job with Bing. The team at Redmond is getting used to their unexpected position as the underdog and, based on my conversation with Weitz, they're beginning to relish the challenge that comes from playing David to Google's Goliath.
My quibble, however -- and it's not an insignificant one -- is that Bing needs to step up its differentiation. Weitz said in the interview that Bing first wanted to at least match Google at its own game: algorithmic search. I understand this logic, but there are some other things to consider here.
To Break a Habit, You have to Break the Pattern
For Bing to gain market share against Google, it has to break a habit. And to break a habit, you have to force someone out of his or her rut. There are two ways to do that. One, you change the route they have to take so they have to consciously steer back into the rut. Secondly, you give them an alternative that's so much better than the rut, they're willing to do the heavy mental lifting required to consciously shut down their "autopilot"-driven, rut-seeking routines when they start to play out.
Make no mistake; habits are notoriously tough things to break. Our brain has a box-load of nasty little tricks it will employ to keep habits in place, because habits require less work from the brain than actually thinking our way through things. Our brains are inherently lazy (or, if you prefer, efficient). There's no such thing as breaking a habit a "little bit" or breaking a habit "now and then." You either break a habit or you don't.
So what does this mean for Bing? The Bing philosophy right now is that for the vast majority of searches, it delivers what is basically a Bing-ized version of Google. And then, for some select searches, it delivers a more differentiated search result. For example, search for "Bristol England" on Bing and Google. On Bing, you'll get what's called a Task Page, tailored to be more useful for those trying to accomplish things related to Bristol: the current weather, favorite attractions and the official tourism site. This is Bing's flavor of a decision-based guide. This, theoretically, is what makes Bing a "decision engine" rather than a "search engine."
But now go to the Google results page. While it may be hidden in a more traditional presentation of results, still, most of the same information is there. I'd give Bing the edge from a usefulness perspective, but it's not a knock-out. It's more of a 12 round split decision.
Lets try another example: the much-cited Farecast search. True, the latest airfares from Farecast are useful, but real interactivity is still one click away at Bing Travel. Bing is dipping a rather tentative toe in the waters of usefulness. Right now, Google isn't matching the Farecast functionality, but even with its standard search results, the perceivable difference to the user is not all that great.
I feel Bing is still trying to match Google rather than draw away from it. And to break a habit, you have to put a lot of distance between yourself and the habitual choice. You don't abandon one rut for a similar rut headed to the same basic destination. What's the point of that?
There is some good news in all this. From the user perspective, I've seen more helpful features unveiled on both Google and Bing than I've seen in a long, long time. As Bing starts to experiment with more useful features, Google has been consistently matching it. And this brings up another fatal flaw in Bing's strategy. It's pretty easy for Google to keep a watchful eye on Bing for useful innovations. As long as those innovations are incremental in nature, Google can quickly match them. Bing will never build up the degree of differentiation needed to break a habit. But the byproduct is pretty compelling for the user. No matter whether you're using Google or Bing, the pace of innovation has picked up dramatically.
In the Bing-Google battle, the user seems to be the big winner so far.