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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Bing: Can a "Popular" Search Engine Become Popular?

"Go to Bing. Try this?!," I said.

Carolyn and I were in the middle of watching Blue Jays highlights; me, fresh back from the Microsoft Canada demo of the Bing search engine. Her, an intelligent Ph.D. who somewhat knows her way around the Apple OS, fruitlessly trying to use Google to get the answer to a baseball trivia question we were pondering. If Roy Halladay had 14 strikeouts in last night's game in his masterful, complete-game win over the Angels, what's the rundown on the most strikeouts he's ever had in a game?

"Bing! dot com," I burbled, helpfully.

"What?," she "replied." No response yet. Apparently "Go to Bing" does not yet resonate as a domestic communique.

I never do this.

"Bing! Really -- try it at Bing.com this time. Type 'Roy Halladay shutouts single game' or whatnot." (We search experts try not to give more precise directions. It makes normal people feel uncomfortable.)

I've seen many demos (by Microsoft, even). But rarely do I do just like the people in Microsoft focus groups did: notice a difference with the engine's usability, and recommend it to someone.

We didn't find the stat quickly.

Then I remembered that the Bing engine has been tuned to offer more orchestrated consumer-friendly results pages when you type in "Roy Halladay" without any qualifiers.

Sure enough, Carolyn saw a pretty useful Roy Halladay search result full of photos, stats, and search refinements... just one notch short of a Roy Halladay shrine.

We try a similar search for "Scott Rolen". A similar result ensued. Carolyn remarked that the page came complete with a "nice BIG picture" of Scott Rolen. It's at moments like these that it hits me out of the blue: women do like men, and will occasionally admit it even in your presence. Then again, it was just a bad head shot. Perhaps she meant he had a fat head in that shot. That's pretty much my take on it, anyway. Kidding, Scott! Love the Gold Glove play out there! Keep it up! Whew, didn't want to alienate that guy.

The top "related query" in the left navigation was Scott Rolen wife. Being a curious sort, and a man, I thought I'd love to know why. I still don't know. The query results lead to some pretty generic looking Ten Blue Links. Undaunted, I tried the image search for the Scott Rolen wife query. Things break down a bit from here: Bing's image search is as unhelpful as Google's often is. The top photos are all of the ballplayer, other ballplayers, managers, shots of dirt, etc. The highest ranking woman pictured is of an Asian bible college student who is not Scott Rolen's wife. I don't ask. In any case, the page is now down.

Wow, search is distracting.

I look over at Carolyn, who seems to be talking. She's talking about how she likes the layout of the search engine, remarking on how useful it would probably be - I coach her a bit to reinforce the idea that it will pull up better pages for these popular queries. She reacts pretty well, contrary to the usual reaction you see to a demo. Basically - she doesn't hate it. And had a few good comments.

This home focus group would have probably produced positive feedback clips on a par with those Microsoft showed us in the demo, of the average cafe or office users giving their take on whether they found it useful: the dainty twenty-something with tattoo-covered arms; the office manager who doesn't like to "re-work" when he's searching for a hard-to-find stat like "World's Best Rapper,"; the affable round-faced chap who "never gives up" when he does his goal-directed searches for things like "nightlife when he's in Italy," but would rather get to what he's searching for faster.

Microsoft's research is impeccable. According to Stacey Jarvis, search lead for Microsoft Canada, a high number of search queries simply do not deliver successful results. She noted, metaphorically if nothing else (since it probably isn't competing with the Print button), "the back button is the most frequently used button in search." So search still sucks? Well, it's definitely unsatisfying a lot of the time. But luckily not quite to the point where users won't keep trying.

Also germane to all of the above users, and you, and me: about 50% of queries are about returning to previous tasks. So we need to get to information more quickly.

One evocative persona was a woman who took 27 minutes and had to retry her search five times to find a retailer for the Merrell shoes she was looking for. You think that sounds painful? That's a US example. In Canada, stock is much spottier and domestic e-commerce players are often harder to find and harder to shop from.

The "managed" results on broad, popular queries I alluded to above are called Best Match. If you type Toronto Blue Jays, you get a schedule, a Wikipedia entry, news, and other "most useful" items... every time.

For search optimizers, this should be a continuation of the trend set in motion years ago by all the search engines. If the door was slowly closing on the opportunity for "just any website with the right SEO strategy" to rank well on broad queries, does this slam it shut? Good for consumers, bad for SEO's? Forget ranking on head terms, folks.

Freshness is a big part of the rolling mandate here. The Toronto Blue Jays result page also shows a current box score with the annoying news that it's 3-0 Angels in the third inning. Whoops, 4-0. Let's hope Casey Janssen settles down: he's got Halladay caliber composure and stuff... minus the extra heat since his injury.














Other useful real-time features are being dutifully built into Bing.

Type "Flight Status" and you get a handy app to look at your flight's status. A bit of inside baseball came up at the demo: Mark Evans asked "Is that part of Farecast you're integrating?" and Travel Ninja Stuart MacDonald interrupted from the crowd to say: "Flightstats isn't Farecast." Apparently, Farecast integration is down the road, if that means anything to you.

Yes! Matthews jr. struck out. Oh no! Janssen hit a guy with a pitch.

Back to this.

Microsoft - and others - are good at researching pain points and they're good at building features. Information retrieval is complex, though. And users are using one main technique to find answers: typing short or long queries into search engines. Repeating queries, trying different results. That's the case on Google as much as it is on Bing.

Bing is following, using more sophisticated technology and database integration, the spirit of the old Ask Jeeves answer engine or the recent thoughts behind Mahalo. Figure out how to be reasonably close to the right intent on the most popular 80% of queries.

For hard-to-find information, it may well be the quality of the underlying results that blocks us from getting there, so is it really up to a search engine to fix that? Well, certainly Wolfram Alpha is trying to get us answers to very specific queries like "what are the highest single-game strikeout totals for Roy Halladay?"

We got to the answer easily in this case only because the headlines told us that Halladay's 14 K's was a personal best. Search engines don't always make it easy to get specialized information.

That just underscores the point of Microsoft's research: many search journeys today still end in frustration. The fact that Microsoft's response will leave some users pleased, and others most certainly frustrated, still seems like progress. The new buzz in the industry being generated by the likes of Bing and Wolfram Alpha is good for consumers, even if they all still offer only very partial solutions to the problem of finding exactly what we "want."

So if Bing's flavor is to do well on popular queries with an unsophisticated "mass" audience, does it follow that it will gain in popularity, backed by an $80mm advertising campaign? When specifically asked, Stacey Jarvis was candid that Microsoft's current search share in Canada is 4.9%. But no one at the company is willing to stand behind any boasts about concepts like "switching search engines," market share, and (with some exceptions, like in the focus group videos) "Gooogle." They're united behind what is evidently a very good product that can improve more with refinement. And quite rightly, daring to predict widespread consumer adoption of Bing isn't in the Microsoft script at the moment. Do they have a plan here, or just a solid product?

It's now 5-0 Angels, with the Jays still hitless. But I probably won't watch the rest of the game on a search engine. It's off to the gym, where I hope Dr. Phil isn't showing on the TV's.

Note: Stacey Jarvis, Search Lead for Microsoft Canada, will speak on the Orion Panel on the Future of Search at SES Toronto, next Monday, June 8.

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