Microsoft launched Bing a few months ago with the obvious, but unspoken, aim of breaking Google's dominance of the search engine market -- and the astronomical advertising income that goes with it. I'm not interested in whether Bing is a better search engine than Google -- if you want to compare search performance, there's a very nice system from Blackdog. Instead, this article will look at whether Bing is a better search engine for advertisers.
The fight for market share
CrunchBase has an informative set of video interviews with Stefan Weitz, director of Bing. In these, Weitz states that the key difference between the Bing and Google is not the search results -- he implies Bing doesn't need to be a better search engine than Google; it only needs to be as good, which is almost a given with today's technical knowledge. What differentiates the two, according to Weitz, is the presentation of that material:
"What makes Bing unique is organization of results... and tools for insight which help you make key decisions," Weitz says. "We are adapting the interface based on the intent of the user. Engines should be smart enough to take the question and adapt the way we display the results to the consumer in a way which is actually logical for that task."
Weitz doesn't expect people to switch from Google to Bing quickly. According to Weitz, Microsoft conducted extensive studies into how people used search engines, and what would make them switch, before it even started to design Bing. In other words, Bing was specifically designed to encourage people to switch. The challenge for Microsoft is that its research revealed that the choice of which search engine to use is subconscious. So even though studies show people might prefer Bing, most would stay with what they're used to.
Weitz states that the key to Microsoft's strategy lies in OEM deals. What he means by this is that when people buy new computers, Bing will be the default search engine on that computer, just as it is with Internet Explorer 8. Thus, Microsoft is relying on the fact that people won't change search engines. They'll simply put Bing in front of them first, knowing that -- as long as Bing is at least as good as Google -- most people won't make the effort to shift back to Google.
And it's working.
Bing has gained around 1 percent market share each month since launch -- that's roughly about the same rate of growth as Internet Explorer 8. This share is coming mainly from Google -- which is losing market share at the same rate as Bing is growing, while the other search engines like Yahoo are holding steady.
Bing is also growing faster than Google did. According to TechCrunch, in August, Bing grew faster than Google for the first time, with a 31.9 percent annual increase in search queries compared to 21.6 percent growth for Google and 16.8 percent for Yahoo.
The Catalyst Group has conducted an eye-tracking study comparing how people view ads in Bing and Google. The study showed that people spent more than twice as long looking at Bing ads than Google AdWords. It is clear from the eye-tracking heat maps that user attention is more focused in Bing and less diffused across the whole page. In other words, the information is arranged better. While the study was small (only 12 people), it looks like an ad in Bing will get more attention than an ad in Google.
However, there are some catches. Bing puts ads at bottom of page, but they were never seen by anyone. People don't scroll through the search results on Bing as much as on Google. This is because they don't have to -- they are more likely to find what they are looking for at the top of the listings in Bing than in Google. This shows that Microsoft has been successful in presenting its results better than Google.
However, this also has consequences for ad placement. Because people are less likely to scroll, ads that are in the bottom half of the page will be seen less often. This places a higher premium on getting a top PPC listing than was the case with Google.
This will have several consequences for advertisers. First, it will encourage bidding wars, so it is likely that PPC rates in Bing will be higher than in Google, though this may take some years to evolve. Furthermore, Bing is pushing hard to extend its advertising affiliate network. If people are bidding more for Bing ads than Google ads, it will make Bing a more attractive proposition for affiliates than Google, simply because an affiliate will earn more from Bing's higher-priced ads. In the long term, this could lead to Bing having a more extensive affiliate network than Google. Part of this drive will inevitably include affiliates switching to Bing from Google, so as Bing's affiliate network grows, Google's will shrink.
None of the above would matter much if there was no difference between Bing visitors and Google visitors when they hit your site. However, there is a big difference -- Bing visitors are better.
You don't need to look at studies, or even the search engines themselves, to work out which visitors are better for your site. You can determine this by looking at bounce rates. Looking at the client sites I analyze, the launch of Bing was instantly obvious -- bounce rates for Bing visitors are around 3 to 4 percent lower than bounce rates for Google visitors. This is true both for visitors from PPC ads and from native listings. Once people are inside the site, they act in the same manner. However, in the case of PPC, you've still paid for a visitor if they bounce, so the bounce rate becomes an extra cost to factor into the ROI of the ad campaign. With Bing that ROI will be 3 to 4 percent better.
I only analyze a limited number of sites, so I considered the possibility my data could be unrepresentative. I contacted James Carswell, an ad manager at Periscopix, a specialist PPC agency. Carswell confirmed that the bounce rate for Bing visitors is better than Google's across all their clients and across all sectors.
When it comes to tracking conversions, the picture is more complicated because Bing only sets a seven-day cookie, compared to 30 days for Yahoo and Google. This makes tracking all conversions that originated with a PPC ad difficult. With a longer cookie, Google can claim a higher percentage of conversions than Bing. Yet even under these limitations, Carswell says Bing still shows better performance conversion rates than Google or Yahoo:
"As far as we're concerned," he said, "Bing is great in terms of traffic quality; we just need a lot more of it. For smaller clients, it's often not even worth creating a campaign on Bing because we wouldn't see enough traffic to make it worthwhile."
Carswell also feels Google's ad management interface is better than Bing's.
"Their adCenter system is certainly not as easy to use or powerful as Google's, and their desktop editor falls well short of what Google's AdWords editor can do. The other downside to Bing's conversion tracking is that it can't track sales value whereas both Google and Yahoo can. All we can track is the total number of conversions."
Bing has only been out for a few months. As anyone who has ever bought a new Microsoft product knows, Microsoft doesn't release mature products -- they launch as soon as possible, then rely on user feedback to fine-tune performance. Microsoft takes user feedback very seriously. On that basis I fully expect Bing's adCenter to evolve.
PPC is only half the search marketing picture. The other side is search engine optimization (SEO), which aims to acquire visitors from the native listings. Unlike Google, Microsoft is extending a helping hand to the SEO community, even publishing SEO guidelines.
SEO changes slowly, so it's a little early to tell the difference between Bing and Google to the SEO community. At this stage the differences in listings between the two are minor. For example, I've noticed Bing is less susceptible to keyword stuffing the URL than Google. The key difference is that it looks like Bing is more accurate when it comes to pinpointing the sites people are after. This suggests Bing is harder to fool than Google, which is good news for ethical SEO professionals, who focus on quality content, and bad news for the unethical SEO brigade, which relies on tricks. It should make SEO for Bing more effective and easier.
Bill Gates has a saying that people are overly optimistic about the immediate future, and overly pessimistic about the long-term future. Applied to Bing this means we shouldn't write it off because the initial gains have been small. By the same token, just because gains have been small now, don't think the world will stay the same. Bing is taking market share from Google at a steady rate of 1 percent per month. Furthermore, that rate is itself increasing.
As the community of web users grows, everyone's visitor volume grows, but Bing is growing faster than Google. Microsoft understands that people won't change search engines, so it'll make Bing the default engine on new computers and in Internet Explorer. Since most people won't override this, as they upgrade their equipment they'll move to Bing -- and stay there.
At the moment Bing PPC offers a better ROI than Google PPC. However, as we've seen, there are factors within Bing that could push ad rates up. Whether prices will go so high as to reverse the ROI in Google's favor remains to be seen.
We also need to remember that Yahoo is switching to Bing. This means, in the long term, you'll only have two real choices for PPC -- Bing and Google. At this stage it looks like Bing is a better place to spend your ad dollars.
So the only thing Bing really lacks is volume. Give it time -- it'll get it.
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