What happens when you spend on advertising rather than the customer experience? Back in June 2009 I wrote about Microsoft’s launch of Bing, its search engine, in a column called A hundred million mistakes. As the name indicates, I wasn’t too positive on the maneuver. Here’s an excerpt:

Microsoft’s strategy, to win market share from Google, is not to compete on user experience. No. Microsoft’s strategy is to advertise the heck out of the thing and hope people flock to the site.

They are spending – wait, let me try my best “Dr. Evil” voice – one hundred million dollars to order the world to use their search engine. According to a Microsoft exec in charge of the launch, “The key will be whether we deliver a product and connect with people emotionally in the advertising.”

Well, it’s three years later and time to see how the experiment worked out. A few weeks ago a New York Times article reported that Microsoft’s online services division suffered a loss of 260 million dollars last year.

Wait a second, I’m getting an alert from my fact-checking team… ahh, yes, I typed that figure wrong. Microsoft’s online services division lost 2.6 billion dollars in the last fiscal year. That is just wow. A pretty decisive result.

I should clarify that there is nothing wrong with paying to run ads and promote a good product. But it requires just that, a good product – something with a distinctly better customer experience than the competitor. Any time you hear an executive going on about “creating an emotional connection,” watch out. Especially in a goal-directed experience like search, people want something simple and quick, not some kind of emotional bond.

Despite some recent misfires in other products, Google continues to offer an outstanding search experience. It’s really simple to describe: you search for something, you get some good results, you click one of them and leave Google. The experience is fast and easy. To put it another way, there’s no obvious pain point that customers are dying to get solved. If anything, what customers might want most of all is for Google not to change anything – by, say, cluttering its results and generally mucking up the experience.

In Bing’s case, Microsoft did the following:

• Bing challenged a competitor that already offered a great experience, setting up an incredibly difficult strategic challenge.

• Bing was unable to offer a remarkably better search experience, so users didn’t switch from Google to Bing.

• When that didn’t work, Bing began pushing more features and data into its interface, in a new third column of results called the Sidebar.

This new feature, the result of a partnership with Facebook, launched in May (source). The Sidebar appears on every search results page – it can’t be disabled – and asks users to log into Facebook. If the user logs in, the search includes friends’ feeds, and can even poll their responses to the search query.

The Sidebar raises an interesting (say, 2-billion-dollar) question. Was the feature designed because Bing partnered with Facebook? Or because users had a pain point, like they were saying they really wanted their Facebook friends to weigh in on their searches?

I keep bringing up pain points because they are often the basis for a great strategy. But to find them, you have to elevate users over other concerns like 3rd-party partnerships. For example, here’s one pain point some users have in search: they don’t like being tracked. As pointed out in this well-designed explanation, most search engines track your queries and sell them to whoever will buy them. (I can’t imagine what these users think about sharing their queries with Facebook and all their friends.) The search engine that created the explanation, DuckDuckGo, offers a unique customer experience: it doesn’t save your search queries. That is an idea you can build a search engine with.

Meantime, the Wall Street Journal reported this month that Microsoft is still trying to figure out how to fix their Bing mistake:

Despite Bing’s lagging market share, Microsoft executives say they are working to improve Web search for users, and they say Bing has features, including a tie-in with Facebook Inc., that help it stand out from Google.

I wonder how that will turn out. Microsoft’s plan so far has been to mimic the leader (Google), and chase after partners (Facebook). Neither strategy has worked. There’s another path for Microsoft – and for every company and team out there – and that is to listen to its customers. Especially for Microsoft, there are plenty of ways to delight customers, since there are so very many pain points to address.

Users don’t want Microsoft to improve Web search. They find things just fine on Google. What they want is a better email program, a better calendar, a better Office suite, dare I say a better operating system,… the list is long. There are SO many things to work on, and they don’t involve begging the world – with a huge ad budget – to stop using Google.

  1. Many people felt that web search was as good as it would be when Google launched.

    I think there are two things a search engine could focus on to differentiate from Google:

    1. privacy (which as mentioned is something DuckDuckGo is covering).
    2. semantic search tied to social data to provide answers based on authority beyond links (something similar to what Bing is trying with Facebook integration).

    Side note, it’s pretty cool to see DuckDuckGo sustaining big growth over the last couple of years.

    • Yeah, tell Apple the same thing! They just downgraded their map functionality by ditching Google Maps in iOS6. But then again, maybe they have bigger, long-term plans? As outside observers both ideas (MSFT sticking with Bing, or AAPL ditching Google Maps) may seem stupid as surface level, but I’m sure there are grander plans driving them.

  2. R. Mohammad Himayathullah says:

    My guess is Microsoft will never learn from its mistakes owing to the fact that it has so much at stake. Instead, it is going to spend even more money in its various pursuits and fail even more spectacularly in the days to come.

  3. I remember Yahoo’s search and how I was happy with that for years before Google came along. I wouldn’t say Google’s search is that good, I struggle to find art and cultural information with Google (not that I’ve tried Bing for this). I realize artists publishing their work online might be difficult to “crawl” for Google but is that an excuse to omit that data from their search? Human beings don’t experience the web like crawlers! There ARE improvements that can be made to the search experience but if your a marketing person your going to approach the problem like a marketing person. OR you’re just gonna be happy that you got such an enormous budget to work with. Either way it’s myopic.

    • Steph, I’m curious and want to press you on the pain point you mention – finding art & cultural info with Google. Can you give an example of a successful and/or failed search that speaks to this?

      I don’t have a horse in this race (I don’t work for any search provider) but I’m genuinely curious about specifics for my own edification.

  4. I recall a white paper Microsoft issued some years ago about the importance of ‘trust’ when it came to privacy issues. Go Figure!

    Understanding the role of Bill Gates Sr. is a little publicized aspect of Microsoft. His law firm, MS Counsel, made its name after the WPPS Nuclear plant default in Washington State as the leading state and local bond firm – along with the West’s largest private utility – sold overseas post Enron.

    Gate’s Sr, was, rumour has it, the firm’s divorce and family law specialist, many of his clients obtained by his civicly active wife, Mary, now deceased. As you likely know Mary was also the one who got Bill, and Paul, the IBM contract via the national United Way Board….

    One take of mine is that MS is run like a government – because the law firm that controls it is the same one that runs Washington State!

  5. “… advertise the heck out of the thing and hope people flock to the site…”

    Sounds like Google with Google+.

  6. Mark – Great post… I really hope the MS does find a way with search soon. No doubt Google is great at what they do, but they need to have some competition in the search arena. I’ve tried using bing. I went so far as to give it a one-week exclusive (no Google) tryout; I went running back to Google the following week. Time will tell I suppose…

  7. What we need is a search engine that can find something when we don’t know what it’s called.

    Maybe using a synonym net, so we can work towards what we want.

  8. Google has a monopoly in terms of their market share of search engines. It is still the number one search engine that people use and unless anything drastically happens with bing or yahoo, it will remain this way in the future. Google is simple yet very effective, whereas I find bing a whole lot more cluttered in terms of user experience and weirdly more stressful to use.

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