Bing usage promising, but jury still out

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One month into the life of Bing, Microsoft's revamped search engine, the industry is buzzing over initial promising usage statistics and market share claims.  Yet others are more cautious, suggesting that short-term usage stats do not necessarily equate with a change in consumer behavior and long-term market share gain.

Stat Counter, a Dublin-based Web analytics firm, recently reported that Bing had gained 1% of the search market share, for a total of 8.23%, during June 2009. Google, the long-time market leader, dropped its share form 79.1% to 78.5%.  The reported trend is echoed by other firms: ComScore and Hitwise also suggested that Bing gained on Google shortly after launch.

So what exactly prompted Web searchers to shift behavior in June? Augustine Fou, group chief digital officer of Omnicom's healthcare consultancy group, believes that the initial surge comes from curious first time testers to see what it is and if it is any different or better than Google. “Once tested, if it is not noticeably different, people will go back to old habits,” Fou said.

Kevin Lee, CEO of the search marketing agency Didit, agrees that early usage is tester-driven. “Many of those searches are curiosity driven, particularly in the first month as the advertising and PR are fresh and new.” However, Lee points out that initial user experience reports are positive, suggesting a potential for longer-term gain.

In addition to heavy awareness advertising, most credit Bing's new layout and enhanced usability for the usage surge. According to a recent focus group report by the Catalyst Group, the New York-based research and usability firm, Bing's layout and filtering functionality was preferred over Google's. The actual relevancy of results was deemed a tie between the two engines. “The question now is how many stick,” said Gregory Lyons, performance insight analyst for iCrossing UK. He suggests that the usage statistics after three months will be a better gauge of success than the immediate reports.

Bing's user interface also has a positive effect on advertising, the Catalyst Group found. The report indicated that significantly more time was spent viewing advertisements for a digital camera search. The firm attributes this increase to the refinement options offered on Bing, suggesting that advertising can play a usability role.

But are advertisements useful to users? And if so, is this factor enough to encourage a switch from Google? For Lyons, “relevant ads can be useful as they hopefully give the user what they are looking for,” he said, noting that that Google's Adwords algorithm rewards relevancy. He looks forward to even more radical attempts to improve relevancy, such as user-rated models. “Digg.com is working on a new and interesting advertising model in which people will be able to ‘Digg up' or down certain ads, pricing poor ads out of the system,” he said.

Lee also points out a user benefit to the Bing CashBack, a program where users receive an additional discount by clicking on an ad with a CashBack offer. Lee has found that the program is easier to use, “and could eventually motivate some switching for coupon-minded individuals.”

Assuming that Bing is a more usable product from both the search and advertiser perspective, will it continue to gain ground on Google? Most agree that that the jury is still out. As Fou sums up, Google is a verb already, but most people don't "Bing" it. At least not yet.

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