Google's search lead entrenched but not unbeatable

Curbing search giant's market share requires strategies that do not simply include technical innovations, but also marketing smarts and significant resources, industry watchers say.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Google's stronghold on Web search is deeply "entrenched" but not impenetrable, according to a market observer who suggests that beating the search giant will require a comprehensive and calculated strategy that will also be resource-intensive.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group, said Google's dominance on the Web search market was not simply the result of its search index technology, noting that users were "creatures of habit" and preferred to stick to something they were familiar with.

"And because we don't understand how Web searches are actually done, it's also hard for anyone else to convince us they are better [than Google]," U.S.-based Ednerle told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail.

The easiest way for any search engine to claim a stake in the search market is to focus on a region, such as Baidu in China, or specialize in a particular user demographic, such as Wolfram Alpha which focuses on computational knowledge, he said.

However, Enderle noted that taking on the market leader directly would require significant resources.

"[If the aim is] to take Google head-on, which is what Microsoft's Bing is doing, this will typically require an adequate product and a marketing effort that gets people to distrust or dislike Google, and trust and like Bing.

"[Such attacks] are costly and expensive, and rarely succeed because they are usually underfunded," he said.

Currently, Microsoft spends less than a tenth of their resources on what would be required to truly challenge Google's dominance, the analyst noted. Hence, most of its efforts failed as they were under-resourced and did not focus on sustained habit patterns, he explained. "When the efforts stopped, people generally went back to Google," he added.

"Google is beatable. It's just doubtful Microsoft, or anyone else, will fund an effort that can take them on globally head-on because they are now [so] entrenched [in the market]."

According to Enderle, Bing's greatest success story so far is its relationship with Yahoo in which the latter uses Bing's backend search technologies. Formed in 2009, the partnership gave Microsoft its "single biggest chunk of market share", he said.

According to an Experian Hitwise report released Wednesday, while Bing placed fourth in the U.S. search market share, its share increased 3 percent in October while top-ranked Google slipped 1 percent.

When contacted, a Google spokesperson said in a statement: "Competition in search is great for users. We innovate rapidly to make sure people keep choosing Google, and in the end that means consumers have a better search experience."

A Microsoft spokesperson said building up its position in the search market is a "long-term game for Bing". The company will continue to focus its Bing efforts on creating a "great consumer experience, solid execution, and steady market share growth", he added.

He also highlighted that Bing differentiates itself from competitors in various ways such as driving social search to produce more relevant and personalized results, and forming strategic partnerships.

Vendor partnerships helpful, but insufficient
Microsoft in October announced it had sealed a deal with Mozilla to offer "Firefox with Bing", putting Bing as the default search setting in the Mozilla Web browser.

Enderle said this "certainly helps" Microsoft, but reiterated that vendor partnerships would not be able to replace an adequately funded displacement effort.

Hadley Reynolds, IDC's director of search and digital marketplace technologies, had a more optimistic outlook for Bing, saying that Microsoft had some "big advantages" in its efforts to build a leading brand in search.

Advertisers want an alternative to Google, if for no other reason than to keep a limit on pricing, said Reynolds who is based in Massachusetts, United States.

Second, several companies and vendors--from Web publishers to entertainment media and Internet software producers--are becoming "uncomfortable [with] having to rely on Google, which many business thrusts are continually encroaching on their own".

Hence, it has been "relatively easy" for Microsoft to gather an important stable of partners around Bing, including Mozilla, Facebook, Apple and Research In Motion (RIM), where it can leverage the potential search traffic borne from these third-party relationships, he added.

Reynolds observed that Bing has been effective, to date, in putting pressure on Google through its rapid innovation cycles, social focus and mobile push.

Regardless, the IDC analyst argued that despite the innovative technologies and numerous partnerships, if Microsoft wants to have "a shot at a serious share of the search market and succeed in "dislodging Google as the overwhelming leader", it will have to create a strong follower position for itself in the search space.

Banking on marketing, not innovation
Adam Bunn, London-based director of search engine optimization (SEO) at search marketing agency Greenlight, noted that innovation need not be the sole strategy for Bing to compete against Google because it is not difficult for either side to mimic each other's search technology improvements.

Instead, Bing can win an influential user base through marketing. This should include avoiding "public relations blunders" such as saying Bing is basically as good as Google, noted Bunn, who was citing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's comment at last month's Web 2.0 Summit.

In his e-mail, Bunn pointed out that one key mistake Microsoft made was not launching Bing globally.

"[In the United Kingdom], there was hype about the new engine, backed by millions of dollars in advertising spend. But, on launch day in non-U.S. countries, they simply re-skinned Live Search, keeping the underlying algorithm the same, so results were still pretty poor.

"Launching everywhere simultaneously would have [allowed Microsoft to] capitalize on the buzz about Bing. If Microsoft wanted to pilot Bing in the U.S., it should have left Live Search as it was elsewhere. The half-way house solution was the worst of all possible worlds," Bunn said.

Regarding Bing's international availability, the Microsoft spokesperson said the company evaluates product readiness to "come out of beta, in a market-by-market fashion, to ensure a compelling offering for local consumers".

In Australia, Bing stepped out of beta mode on Nov. 15, after two years of localization work from its Sydney-based development team.

Editorial standards