Sun, Jul 19, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Microsoft takes on its skeptics in the Web search world

In just six weeks, search engine Bing has earned Microsoft something previous efforts failed to win: respect

By Miguel Helft  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SAN FRANCISCO

In late May, Microsoft unveiled Bing, its new Internet search engine, in front of an audience of skeptics: technology executives and other “digerati” who had gathered near San Diego for an industry conference.

To that crowd, Microsoft’s efforts to take on Google and Yahoo in the search business had become something of a laughingstock, and for good reason. Microsoft’s repeated efforts to build a credible search engine had fallen flat, and the company’s market share was near its low.

Six weeks later, Bing has earned Microsoft something the company’s previous search efforts had failed to win: respect.

As a result, analysts say, the once-dubious prospect that Microsoft could shake up the dynamics of the search business, which is worth US$12 billion in the US alone, has become just a bit more likely.

The stakes could not be higher. With Google and others trying to challenge Microsoft’s traditional software business, chief executive Steven Ballmer has made succeeding in search a top company priority. Last year, Ballmer bid a staggering US$47.5 billion in an unsuccessful effort to take over Yahoo, the No. 2 player in search.

That defeat forced Microsoft to redouble its homegrown efforts, leading to the release of Bing.

The new service received favorable write-ups from influential reviewers and technology bloggers for the quality of its results, as well as its features and design. Studies showed that many people preferred its look and feel to Google’s. And marketing experts said the Bing brand was a good choice that resonated with users.

“They have achieved a degree of respect they haven’t had,” said Danny Sullivan, a veteran search analyst and editor of the industry news site SearchEngineLand.

With a tone that suggested surprise, Sullivan said: “They’ve rolled out a product that is good. When people spend time on it, they do like it.”

Anna Patterson, who helped design and build some of the foundations of Google’s search engine and later cofounded Cuil, a search start-up that has yet to attract much of an audience, said: “I think they put together something that is really compelling. They made significant progress.”

That is music to the ears of Microsoft’s long-maligned search team, which has watched the company’s market share in search fall by half, to about 8 percent in May, since it introduced its first search engine in 2005.

“We have had a great start and some good buzz,” said Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president for Microsoft’s online audience business group. “We’re settling in for a big long run.”

But if succeeding in search is Microsoft’s Mount Everest, as some executives there have suggested, Bing’s success so far has merely put the company at base camp.

Reports from more than half a dozen companies that measure search and search advertising all point to upticks in Microsoft’s business since the release of Bing.

Microsoft said on Monday that its internal numbers showed its search traffic growing 8 percent last month.

ComScore, whose reports are closely watched, is expected to release figures for last month on Tuesday.

Still, Bing remains a distant third in the search race. It would have to triple its audience to catch Yahoo — and grow eightfold to tie Google, which accounts for 65 percent of searches in the US.

Sustaining Bing’s early momentum will be harder for Microsoft after the intense marketing campaign fades.

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