Bing's latest market share still anemic (and why customers should care)

Microsoft’s latest sad Bing market share numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Why can’t Bing gain any traction? Despite its innovation and a reported $100 million marketing budget, Microsoft’s Bing search engine can’t even break through to a consistent 4 percent market share. The latest search market share numbers show Bing with a minuscule 3.91 percent share to Google’s 84.64 percent. Over the last 15 months, Bing’s share has bounced up and down between 3 percent and 4 percent.

And yet, Steve Ballmer has looked to Bing as the inspiration of cloud-enabling its beloved Server tools. He ousted Bob Muglia and handed the leadership role of this $15 billion business to Satya Nadella, the lead engineer responsible for Bing. Was that wise?

Well, it turns out, these sad market share numbers don’t really tell the whole story.

The numbers are for March and come from Net Applications, which posts share numbers monthly for search engines, browsers and operating systems. Network World’s Jon Brodkin reported on the browser numbers Friday. There are some caveats, but 3.91 seems pretty anemic, especially since the share really hasn’t improved much and it begs the question of whether what Microsoft has isn’t working or because Google’s just too entrenched or -- as recent legal action indicates -- isn’t playing fair. Microsoft last week filed a formal complaint with the European Commission accusing Google of violating European competition law.

But as to Bing’s piddling market share, one caveat is that these are global numbers and while Microsoft is a global company, Bing isn’t yet a global brand, but it is getting there. When I wrote about Bing’s first anniversary in July 2010, Microsoft officials noted that Bing was only available at that time in the U.S., UK, Australia, Canada and Japan. Today, Bing is out of beta in those countries plus France, a spokesperson told me, and that a beta version is available globally. As Bing expands globally, Microsoft will be less and less able to use the lack of global reach as an excuse for its small global share.

Microsoft wants us to look at the U.S. where the numbers are less embarrassing. Comscore reported in February that Bing’s U.S. market share was 13.6 percent to Google’s 65.4 percent. Yahoo, which is in a search advertising partnership with Microsoft, came in second with 16.1 percent. If you combine Yahoo’s and Bing’s shares, that’s close to 30 percent and that should have Google looking over its shoulder. But Bing’s share, while up from 11.5 percent in February 2010, is still growing at a glacial rate. Google’s share was 65.5 in the year ago figures, so Bing/Yahoo put only a 0.1 percentage point dent in Google’s armor.

Bing has been widely and deservedly praised for its innovations such as a feature where you can read an excerpt of a particular search result by holding your cursor over it. Bing also introduced a left sidebar feature with related searches to the main search results. And aesthetically, it has delighted many users with brilliant sharp color photographs on its start page. In fact, many observers say Google seems to have added features to its search engine that were pioneered by Bing. This has lead to counter charges from Google that Bing is copying its search results.

So while Bing is still tiny on the global stage, it appears to be putting pressure on Google in other ways. The European Commission complaint says Google has blocked videos on You Tube, which Google owns, from appearing on other search engine results. It has also made it difficult for advertisers to split their ad budgets among multiple search engines. Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith laid out the case against Google in a blog post, in which he acknowledged “the shoe on the other foot” irony of the situation.

"They have share, we don’t have share," CEO Steve Ballmer is fond of saying, including at the All Things Digital event in May 2009 at which he introduced Bing. Interviewer Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal asked him if search was more important to him as CEO than Windows, which Ballmer dodged with the old “our most important resource is our people” line. "I spend more of my time on talent than trying to be ‘the search guy,'" he said.

Pressed on how he sees Bing taking on Google, Ballmer said, "It might not appeal to everyone, but if it appeals to 20 percent of them, that’s a success."

That would be decent. But when are we going to see it? And will it require Ballmer to put Nadella back on the Bing team? That's worth considering.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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