July 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

The Bing Bang

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Meanwhile, Microsoft was embarking on a national advertising campaign featuring TV, radio, print and online ads. The ads refer to Bing as a “decision engine,” and focus on how Bing quickly gets the information desired to the searcher.

One of Bing’s first TV ads appeared on The Daily Show, a late-night program that appeals to younger consumers. The ad fast-forwards through a series of ads for various products, then concludes with the text: “Getting to what you want faster. It’s what we’re all about.”

The ad runs only 30 seconds, though Microsoft bought two and a half minutes of air time. The program resumes after a voiceover informs viewers they are “getting two more minutes of The Daily Show because of Bing.”

Microsoft declines comment on published reports it will spend $80 million to $100 million promoting Bing. But CEO Ballmer, speaking at the All Things Digital conference in June, said the company plans to spend “lots” on marketing.

As the back-to-school and holiday shopping periods approach, that ad spend increasingly will focus on encouraging consumers to try the Shopping section of Bing-one of six areas highlighted on the Bing home page, along with Images, Videos, News, Maps and Travel-according to Dave Wascha, senior director of Bing Shopping and Cashback, Microsoft’s year-old rebate program that prominently promotes participating merchants in Bing Shopping results. He also says Microsoft promotions will encourage consumers to try Cashback.

Bing and Cashback

Archuleta says Musician’s Hut is going to try Cashback, a product of the 10% jump in traffic from the Bing engine that the e-retailer registered in June. That persuaded him to commit to the expense of feeding data to another marketing program, an investment that hadn’t been a high priority before Bing.

Microsoft, which launched Cashback last year based on technology it acquired when it bought Jellyfish in 2007, pushed to recruit merchants to Cashback in advance of the Bing launch, says Microsoft’s Wascha. He says more than 800 merchants now participate in the program, in which retailers set a percentage discount on each product, and Microsoft sends a check for the discounted amount to consumers who buy through Cashback.

A problem that bedeviled Cashback was fixed in advance of the Bing launch. When a consumer clicked on a retailer’s Cashback offer the next page he saw was a Cashback sign-in screen. Confused consumers often abandoned the purchase. Now a greyed-out image of the retailer’s page appears behind the sign-in box, cueing consumers that they are on the right track.

“The initial interstitial page had a pretty poor performance,” Wascha says. “Now performance is significantly better.”

Despite their aggressive marketing efforts, Microsoft officials downplayed expectations that Bing would quickly gain market share. And Bing made only small gains in its first month. Microsoft’s share of U.S. search queries rose from 8.0% in May to 8.4% in June, while Yahoo fell to 19.6% from 20.1% and Google held steady at 65.0%, according to web measurement firm comScore Inc.

In terms of clicks from paid ads, the results were mixed. Apogee Search followed 10 retailer clients in June and found Google easily bested Bing in terms of gains over the prior month. But web traffic monitor Compete showed Bing’s share of referrals from search ads rose to 5.6% in June from 3.1% in May, and search marketing firm Efficient Frontier reported a 5% increase in Bing’s click share in June over the month before.

“With the launch of Bing and its early signs of promise, the battle between search titans is once again heating up,” says David Karnstedt, president and CEO of Efficient Frontier.

Other early studies indicate consumers like Bing, but don’t see a need to switch from Google.

A July survey of more than 750 U.S. consumers found 59% had heard of Bing and 25% had tried it, reported stock analyst Imran Khan of J.P. Morgan, which commissioned the poll. And while respondents gave Bing high marks, nearly 63% said they were satisfied with their current search experience. “It will be difficult to shift search behavior if people are completely satisfied with their current search engine,” Khan observed.

In a usability test with 12 individuals given two search tasks to perform on Google and Bing, most preferred Bing’s visual design and considered Bing slightly better in terms of organization and refinement options-yet eight of 12 planned to stick with Google. “A little better isn’t enough to get people to switch,” says Nick Gould, CEO of the web design and research firm Catalyst Group, which conducted the test.

These results do not faze Microsoft executives, who emphasize that they are in this race for the long haul, and that Bing will continue to improve. One example: Bing recently began including in its search results Twitter messages from celebrity Tweeters. “This is just the beginning,” says Microsoft’s Wascha. “There’s a ton left to do in the world of search.”

And tons of dollars to be spent by Microsoft and Google as they try to outdo each other through innovation. The unprecedented level of competition and innovation in search that looms on the horizon can only benefit online retailers. l

don@verticalwebmedia.com

How Bing is different- and some early SEO lessons

Bing presents search results in a new way. Here are a few of the differences with Google:

Instead of just listing links to web pages, results are organized into categories. A search for “digital cameras,” for example, includes sections such as Digital Camera Brands, Digital Camera Types and Top 10 Digital Cameras.

Hovering the cursor over the right side of a link pops up a box that provides a glimpse of what’s on the page the link goes to. In some cases, links to retailer sites display products and prices in that box. Bing often shows the retailer’s customer service number.

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