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'Bing It On': Could Microsoft's search engine face-off with Google backfire?

Microsoft has launched a blind-test advertising campaign to promote its Search engine Bing. The test, called "Bing It On", asks users to undertake five searches, and presents them with the results from both search engines side by side, stripped of all branding.

A survey performed by an independent company called Answers Research found that 53 per cent of those tested preferred Bing, while 34 per cent chose Google, and 13 felt there was nothing between the two. The research used 1,000 random Britons, aged 18 and older, who had all used a major search engine in the past month. Participants were not told that Bing paid for the study, and were only told that they were seeing search results from two unnamed search engines.

Emboldened by this testing, Microsoft launched the programme into a fully-fledged ad campaign, complete with bad pun, and built a website encouraging users to take the test for themselves.

On Bing's UK Blog, the company argued that "search has moved from simply finding general information on the web to a contextual, rich experience. And just as the nature of search has changed, so have the providers."

"While many people still use Google, for many, it is simply a habit: Google is what they started using ten years ago and many people haven't taken the time to see what else is out there."

Bold words. Studies have shown that Google holds 89.49 per cent of the current search market, with Bing trailing second with 6.11 per cent. It even lags behind Russia's Yandex search engine. Bing has refused in the past to publish a list of its overall most-searched terms, with malicious speculation abounding that one of its most-used search terms might be the name of its competitor.

However, some analysts have suggested that this campaign represents the beginning of a concerted effort by the smaller competitor to claw in a bigger market share.

The "challenge" advertising format has a proven track record of success for feats of corporate giant-killing. The Pepsi Challenge was a legendary market promotion campaign that pitted the younger brand against soft drinks giant Coca-Cola, and led to Pepsi seizing first place in the cola market in 1983. The scare that this caused at the Atlanta-based drinks giant led to their painful miscalculation with the release of New Coke, and subsequent backpedalling.

But is the research representative of the average user experience? One of the major flaws in the test is that in removing all differentiating branding from the search results, Microsoft has actually hobbled one of Google's best features.

Google Knowledge Graph, which launched in 2012, uses algorithms similar to "intelligent" search engines Ask Jeeves or Wolfram Alpha to try to give users the information they searched for without having to navigate into one of the search results.

If you Google "population of the UK", for instance, the first thing you see at the top of the page is the figure 63.23 million (2012), a graph comparing our fair isle's population to that of other countries, a map of the UK, the Union Jack, and some random stats like population growth rate (0.8 per cent), GDP (2.435 trillion USD) and life expectancy (80.75 years).

None of this pops up within the Bing It On website, and so the test compares only one aspect of Google's functionality with the whole of the Bing experience. A more accurate statement might be that more users choose Bing, once half of Google's most attractive features have been hidden.

This author, for one, ruled in Google's favour in four out of five searches, with one being something of a draw. It seems possible that the test could backfire for Microsoft, since the users of the online survey will not be a random sample – rather, they will be self-selecting and perhaps more cynical for that reason.

To top it off, Ian Ayres, a law professor at Yale University recently challenged Microsoft's 1,000-people survey, and conducted research of his own. His Yale team found that 53 per cent of users actually opted for the Google results, with a paltry 41 per cent nominating Bing.

Still, Brian Kealy, Head of Search for Microsoft UK, issued a statement saying: "We're confident in the quality of Bing's results and we believe many people will be surprised by the outcome of the challenge."

With such a tiny market share, Microsoft must feel it doesn't have anything to lose in aggressively marketing its limping search engine. Problems will arise if too many users end up confirming their preference for Google, an outcome that could do Bing's brand lasting harm in exchange for a short term gain. But I suppose there's no such Bing as bad publicity.

Image: Microsoft; Flickr (Sean Loyless)