Monday, June 1, 2009

What's Really New About Bing? Not Much. But It's Still a Good Direction for Search.

There was some scuttlebutt buzzing around last week's duel between the Google I/O developer's conference and the All Things D conference to the effect that perhaps Google had some intelligence about the Ballmer announcement of the Bing-flavored preview of Microsoft's new Live Search search engine that prompted their announcement of their Wave messaging and collaboration technology. Somehow that doesn't ring true, given the breadth of the Google Wave announcement, which is a pretty encompassing technology initiative. By contrast, Ballmer didn't have anything nearly as broad to offer the ATD crowd, but at least he had something to put up against I/O to keep people buzzing about Microsoft, most of which was catch-up to counter announcement's at Google's earlier Searchology event.

If you can find any significant differences between Bing and the earlier Kumo-labeled version of Microsoft's Live Search preview, you have sharper eyes than I do. That's not necessarily a bad thing; there's a lot to be said for Microsoft's leveraging of their new Powerset technology that helps to dress up search engine results with related content and faceted navigation features. But in several forays into Bing searches, I cannot say that I am finding all that many melds of information that are truly impressive. Yes, it's nice to be able to to have comparison shopping data, reviews and related links embedded in searches such as "Samsung LCD TVs," but that's not so different than, say, a search on Google for "JFK to SFO" with the "related searches" option turned on that has comparison flight shopping tools in the search results. Bing is good, perhaps even state-of-the-art, but hardly a game-changer for the state of search in general.

What the maturing Bing search results do seem to indicate is that the lines between destination sites and search engines will continue to blur as content providers and search engines both go in search of more valuable and engaging contexts for high-quality content. For search engine providers, being able to increase engagement time on a given page of search results is good for ad revenues and overall user satisfaction and brand value. For online publishers, the melded results offered in Bing, Google's Universal Search and other evolving search portals represent opportunities to engage audiences at the point of demand with solutions that enhance their own brand value while building revenues from advertising alliances with search engine portals. You might say, even, that the Bing/Google Universal Search approach is like dialing up a custom magazine/shopping guide/newspaper, with increasingly slick and well-organized content that begins to mimic the editorial capabilities of traditional specialty publications.

The parallel between traditional media and on-demand publications assembled by search engines is underscored in Bing by the rich and engaging photographs that appear on the home page of the Bing site. Squint a little bit and you can imagine the cover of a National Geographic magazine or other glossy high-quality publications. The visual promise of Bing's home page is that what you're about to experience is really, really good at a visceral level. The guts of this "magazine" don't yet match the cover, but you can tell that over time both Bing and other search engines are headed in the direction of getting search results to be as engaging and visually rewarding as traditional magazine publications, albeit with lots of the Web-savvy functionality that keeps people coming back.

With these evolutions in mind, publishers need to be prepared to make their content brands resonate in the online pages of whatever on-demand context appeals to their audiences - including increasingly sophisticated search engines that are aiming to keep people hanging around their pages as long as possible. Initiatives such as Journalism Online will help to make search engines more profitable aggregation venues for traditional publishers, but they need to be ready to accept more willingly the idea that search engines can be great publishing partners that help them to get their content to their audiences in the contexts that they value most. Certainly Bing will help to convince some publishers of this, but it's still early days for publishers recognizing that The New Aggregation is not a mere thought piece but instead a key component in the future of profitable publishing.
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