Bing executive: 'We have caught up' to Google in search quality
For Microsoft, the online search game is no longer about trying to mimic Google's features inside of Bing. Now it's about finding ways to persuade people to switch, said Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft's senior vice-president of online.
"We have caught up now," Mehdi told The Times in an interview Tuesday night, discussing the differences between Microsoft's and Google's delivery of search results. "It's indistinguishable for most people. But that's not a reason to switch."
Of course, mileage may vary.
Before our interview, Microsoft introduced one such incentive to switch during a news conference at the Soho House in West Hollywood -- Bing's new entertainment-focused features.
Among them, Bing users looking for music can stream full versions of songs within the search window with links to buy from iTunes, Amazon MP3 and Microsoft's Zune stores. There's also a TV guide that pulls your location for cable schedules and a bevy of social network integration with movie listings.
Though Mehdi said he's not too concerned with what Google's doing -- "Our goal is not competitively focused because if you follow the competitor, you go down the same path that they did," he said -- the Mountain View, Calif., company is the whale in the swimming pool.
Google, which prides itself on its algorithm that has been tweaked and molded over more than a decade, might suggest that Bing keep working on its own search organs.
"We have many competitors, and we take them all seriously," Google spokesman Gabriel Stricker wrote in an e-mail. "But what we take more seriously is innovation and making search better. Search is at the heart of everything we do, and as we've said many times, it's still an unsolved challenge."
Stricker highlighted a Google blog post from February that says of all search queries, Google has never seen at least 20% of them. "Sound hard?" the author wrote in the post's culmination.
Stricker also pointed us to Wired's February cover story on Google's algorithm, which says Bingers had admitted that Google was still miles ahead at delivering relevant results. Maybe Microsoft strapped on some nitrous in the last few months. (Who knows? Neither search company goes in-depth about what makes up their search algorithms.)
So what is Microsoft's game plan for converting Web searchers? The company has identified five major areas to focus its efforts: travel, health, local information, shopping and the newest being entertainment.
But having what Microsoft considers better features in some areas and being on par in others, Mehdi says, there's still an uphill battle in demonstrating why they're better.
The numbers agree. Google maintained 63.7% of the U.S. search market as of May, while Yahoo and Microsoft, which are partnering on the Bing engine and companion ad network, had 18.3% and 12.1% respectively, according to ComScore.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Mehdi said during his presentation. "It's not like people wake up in the morning, and say, 'Dang, I wish I had another search engine.' "
He then rolled a clip of Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert taking a not-so-subtle jab at Bing after the TV host announced a partnership with Microsoft. (The company agreed to donate to a nonprofit doing oil-spill cleanup every time Colbert said "Bing" on an episode of his show.)
"Bing is a great website for doing Internet searches," Colbert explained in the segment. "I know that because I Googled it."
Even as Google holds onto a huge chunk of the international and U.S. search markets, Microsoft seems to think it has plenty of time to compete in search. Like, decades.
Echoing what the Google spokesman said about the difficulty of algorithmic search, perfecting Web crawling is "a problem that doesn't ever get solved," Medhi said in our interview.
He added: "Algorithmic results -- finding the right link, the right answer -- is an incredibly hard problem. It's going to be a multidecade problem for everyone in the industry."
-- Mark Milian
Photo, top: Yusuf Mehdi in 2004. Credit: Los Angeles Times. Bottom: Bing's music landing page