David Murphy talks to Axel Steinman, VP, strategic search for Bing, about how the company is fighting back against Google’s dominance.
In the search engine world, one company rules supreme. As of January 2018, according to Statista, Google commanded an 84.91 per cent share of the UK search market. It’s the sort of dominance that could make you wonder why anyone else bothers, but at Microsoft, Axel Steinman, VP strategic search for Bing, has far from given up the ghost. While Bing’s UK market share lags way behind Google’s on 11.23 per cent, it has almost doubled in the past four years, from just 6.1 per cent in 2014, and Steinman is bullish about Bing’s search credentials.
“We have a 26 per cent share on queries from PCs – 35 per cent in the US – and that’s where 85 per cent of conversions come from for marketers,” he says. “And with Windows 10, we are making search more pervasive. We offer better products and services than Google but it’s difficult to break consumer habits. In blind tests, however, people choose Bing, and in any Windows 10 PC we see 50 per cent more queries per user than in any previous version of Windows.”
That’s partly because, as Steinman says, with Windows 10, Microsoft has made a concerted effort to surface Bing’s search service. Type a query into the search bar at the bottom of the screen and more often that not it will return search results from Bing, taking you to the search engine if you select one of the results.
Steinman is also keen to flag innovations within Bing, such as the ability to drill down within an image search to search in part of the image. So if a Bing search returns images of Formula One cars, the user can click on a magnifying glass icon in the top right of the image. That brings up a cropping window that can be used to select one of the cars from the image and search for that.
Until recently, search was primarily a text-based process, in terms the queries at least. But as smart speaker penetration increases, and smartphone users become more accustomed to talking to Siri, Google and Cortana, the number of voice searches is increasing rapidly.
According to eMarketer, 20 per cent of Google searches on mobile are already conducted via voice, while comScore has forecast that by 2020, 50 per cent of all searches will be instigated via voice input.
This is naturally giving both search engine providers and brands pause for thought, as the search engines work out how to deliver search – including paid search – via voice, and brands try to figure out how to maintain their organic rankings built up over years of detailed keyword analysis, and how to tap into whatever paid opportunities Google, Amazon, Bing and others make available. For Steinman, the key to voice search is context. He says:
“With voice, you need to understand natural language and emotions. If I ask on my device where is the closest…whatever it might be, you can gauge the intent from the urgency in the voice. And then it is down to AI to understand that intent. Because if I can understand the intent, I can present the consumer with the very best option at any given point. If I’m on my phone, walking and I ask about somewhere to get Sushi, the intent is probably to find the closest restaurant that I can walk to. If I’m in the car moving at 40mph I can travel further because I’m driving so the results should reflect that. And if I’m searching on a PC then I’m probably looking for recipes, so we need to understand the context.”
For the moment, Microsoft has chosen not to launch its own branded smart speaker, choosing instead to put its smart assistant, Cortana, into a device called the Invoke, made by Harman Kardon, which launched in the US last September. Rumours did emerge earlier this month that Microsoft might be working on a device of its own. In any event, says Steinman, advertising is not on the agenda for devices powered by Cortana.
“There’s no advertising in the Invoke Bing search” he says. “If people are met with an ad on a smart speaker, they will get annoyed and as an industry we should not self-inflict that type of problem. Look at ad blockers, they are a self-inflicted problem that came about because we annoyed consumers with too many ads, so I hope we don’t annoy them with voice.”
And what of paid search, which is where, after all, Google earns the vast majority of its revenues?
“As we grow in volume we become more relevant,” says Steinman. “With the 26 per cent market share on PC and 85 per cent conversion we should be getting 26 per cent of marketer’s paid search budgets, and we have cheaper clicks, so therefore the ROI on any click is better than Google. This is very appealing to advertisers but they want more volume.
“We compare with Google on all features, so it’s easy and transparent to migrate. We have tools that can pull 95 per cent of campaigns into Bing with three clicks, plus a great team across Europe to service our largest clients and help them to get more out of Bing. We are investing heavily in all this and in building closer relationships with our advertisers.”
“We are also working on how we can combine the two key aspirations for advertisers. One is performance, the second is audience, asking ourselves what else can we provide to enable them to target audiences through search. We don’t have anything to announce right now, but this is an area where we see a clear need for advertisers and which will also improve the quality of experience for consumers.”