Souped up Bing latest Microsoft salvo in battle against Google

Microsoft fired another salvo as its battle against Google for search turf heated up this week.

Earlier this week, Microsoft unveiled new features aimed at making Bing more than just a search site.

Bing was enhanced with an entertainment page that will let users watch TV shows, play games and listen to music — all without leaving the Web site.

“This has become a full-on war. I’m not too sure it can get any hotter,” said Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group. “Microsoft is trying to make Bing ever more capable.

Microsoft’s goal, he said, is to get you to live within their search engine and not go to any other sites, certainly not Google. “The more you can do with Bing, the less likely you are to wander someplace else like Google. It’s textbook customer containment.”

Microsoft is looking to significantly beef up Bing’s handling of entertainment-related queries, an area that draws a lot of interest from users.

The company also will be looking to increase its footprint with other “verticals,” such as health, travel and shopping.

Microsoft’s Bing could use a boost in its competition with long-dominant Google.

Despite Microsoft‘s hefty investment of time, R&D and advertising dollars, Bing hasn’t made much of a dent in Google’s search market share in the year that Bing has been on the market.

Google has been hanging tough, grabbing more than 71 per cent of all U.S. searches in April. That was a 2 per cent increase over its numbers in March, according to a report from Hitwise, an online traffic monitor.

Bing, which is in third place behind Microsoft and Yahoo, saw its own numbers slip 2 per cent in April, reaching a 9.43 per cent share for the month.

“This week’s move is a good one for Bing,” said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group.

“I think these new features are good choices for their initial rollout, particularly the video search. With a single search, users can see pages of thumbnail videos that relate to their search terms. Plus, they can see the videos play without leaving the Bing page, which helps users sift through the results and find exactly what they want.”

If Microsoft continues to innovate and execute well, it just might start chipping away at some of Google’s substantial market lead, Olds said.

The analysts were in agreement that Bing’s innovation will push Google to do the same. And that, they say, can only mean good things for users.

“Bing’s design choices have already had a big impact on Google,” said Hadley Reynolds, an analyst at market research firm IDC.

“The most obvious is Google’s belated introduction of a left rail similar to Bing’s this past May, and their increasing integration of rich media and best bets into the interface. Now Bing is moving the goal post further with these June enhancements.”

Reynolds expects to see an ongoing series of changes to the core searcher experience from both Google and Microsoft continue through the next couple of years and “spawn a counterpart competition in the mobile search experience.”

Beyond product skirmishes

And Microsoft’s concerted struggle for supremacy against Google isn’t just about striving product one-upmanship.

Microsoft, it seems, has also used a legal strategy to take down Google a peg or two.

For instance, in March, the already heated online search war between the two behemoths cranked up a notch as Google officials openly blamed Microsoft for triggering the European Commission’s antitrust probe into its activities.

The EC announced that it had launched an antitrust investigation of Google based on complaints from three firms, two with connections to Microsoft.

Over the past year or so, Microsoft has been spending a lot of money and development resources to capture some of Google’s 60 per cent share of the search market.

But while the release of Microsoft’s Bing search engine last summer did garner a lot of attention, Google still maintains the dominant position it has held in the search market for years.

At least one analyst sees Microsoft’s alleged instigation of the anti-trust probe against Google as Redmond’s attempt to create a legal storm that would distract Google officials and keep them from focusing on the future of the business.

“Against Google’s level of control,” any effort to compete directly in the search business “could take [Microsoft] a lot of years and a massive investment,” said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group.

“This approach [using legal means to distract Google] potentially shortens their time and the investment.

“The disparity in market share is simply too large for them to close the gap unless Google makes a massive sustained mistake or is hit by a successful antitrust action,” he added.

Whit Andrews, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said it’s no surprise that the Microsoft-Google battle would enter a new realm, in this case the courtroom.

“I think that search is the most important crossroads in the history of information,” Andrews said. “I expect the striving conflict among the most powerful companies and countries in the world to intensify.”

In a conference call with journalists, Julia Holtz, Google’s top antitrust lawyer had blamed Microsoft for sparking the probe. “Microsoft is our competitor, and that explains many actions,” she said.

She noted that the three companies whose complaints triggered the investigation included Ciao, a German company acquired by Microsoft in 2008.

“Ciao [was] a long-time AdSense partner of Google’s, with whom we always had a good relationship,” Holtz said in a blog post.

“However, after Microsoft acquired Ciao in 2008, we started receiving complaints about our standard terms and conditions. They initially took their case to the German competition authority, but it now has been transferred to Brussels.”

She also noted that a second complainant, Foundem, a U.K. price comparison site, is a member of a trade group called iComp, which is largely funded by Microsoft.

French legal search engine was the third company whose complaint against Google is under investigation by the EC.

Microsoft responded to Holtz’ charge by contending that Google responded to the EC investigation by pointing fingers rather than answering the charges.

Dave Heiner, vice-president and deputy general counsel at Microsoft, added in a blog post that “Google hasn’t been shy about raising anti-trust concerns about Microsoft in the last few years. Ultimately what’s important is not who is complaining, but whether or not the challenged practices are anticompetitive.”

Enderle noted that in the past, Microsoft frequently complained that rivals such as Oracle Corp., Sun Microsoystems Inc. and Google were behind antitrust probes that targeted its actions.

“If you think about it, the validity of the charge should be based on the validity and substance of the evidence, not on whether a large competitor brought it to the enforcement agency’s attention.”  

“I think this is a natural progression,” Microsoft said. “Google’s should have been to anticipate that the fight they helped start with Microsoft would likely come back to haunt them. It’s like firing a nuclear bomb with the belief that the other side won’t turn around and use it against you.”


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