Monday, June 8, 2009

Search Insider: The Real Problem With Microsoft's Bing

The Real Problem With Microsoft's Bing

I've spent many hours with Bing over the past week, read all its supporting documentation, watched Microsoft's "why we built this thing" videos, and seen all of JWT's new ads for the service. At a certain point in my total immersion in Bingness, I came very close to being seduced by the idea that Microsoft, by making search results more concise and easier to find, might actually advance the search industry.

But my joyous reverie was shattered when I recalled a fundamental lesson of merchandising, which is that by making things too easy for your customers to find, you can doom yourself to certain destitution and ruin.

Think of the last time you went to the supermarket to buy a half-gallon of milk. You'd think that the supermarket would put the milk close to the cash register, letting customers complete their walk-in/walk-out cycle in the shortest possible time.

Is that where smart retailers put the milk? Not on your life. They put the milk way at the back of the store, which means you've got to traverse multiple aisles and walk many hundreds of feet before you get to it, exposing yourself to thousands of brightly-colored packages in many product categories screaming "buy me!" The idea here - and, yes, it's slightly diabolical -- is that at some point in your extended journey it will "spontaneously" occur to you that you need some cookies to go with your milk, plus some peanut butter, and maybe even a six pack of beer to wash down your meal.

Retailers have worked this way for years, and yet nobody's angrily tweeted that "the Waldbaum's Experience Is Broken." But the search industry is a topsy-turvy, reality-inverting world where up is down and left is right. Microsoft's researchers gleefully pronounce that "search is broken," that most queries "fail," and that Bing, by elevating "finding" over "searching," is going to set things right once and for all. One of Microsoft's ads even suggests that if America hadn't been so frenetically searching for stuff over the past few years, we'd have found out that the world's economic system was going to collapse early enough to save Mom and Dad's 401K. Other ads suggest that Google-induced "search overload" is turning people into zombie-like automatons incapable of answering a simple, direct question without regurgitating paragraphs of long-tail content.

Folks, this is a complete crock. I've heard hundreds of complaints about the way the search industry works, but nobody's ever squawked about the querying process itself. In fact, it seems that people are quite happy searching, clicking, refining, and searching again until Kingdom Come. There seems to be something deeply human about compulsive querying behavior that appears to harness primitive hunter-gatherer instincts we've lived with for at least 50,000 years. Where's the caveman thrill of nailing one's quarry after a bracing hunt in the jungle when Bing hands said quarry to you, precooked, on a silver platter?

Search isn't broken and doesn't need fixing. Google -- for better or worse -- has conditioned all of us to realize that multiple queries, ambiguity, endless stacks of results, and the Back Button -- not quickie in-and-out result shortcuts -- are good things that facilitate commercial transactions for products we never even knew existed. Just as few supermarket shoppers grouse about having to walk hundreds of feet to find the item they're looking for in a store, Google's users don't object to having to click many times to find whatever the heck they're looking for. Some might call this wasteful: I call it an educational, horizon-broadening way to spend your time. Furthermore (and it's really a very small point in the overall scheme of things), running a query-driven click factory happens to be insanely profitable for the search engine, so why mess with it?

If Microsoft were really smart, it would ditch its whole "Bing: The Sound of Found" nonsense, take a cue from Google, and introduce Bing with a new slogan: "You'll Never Find What You're Looking For Here, But You'll Have a Great Journey!" By doing so, Bing would make Microsoft's shareholders happier, honor the time-honored merchandising lessons of the supermarket, and be more faithful to the spirit of poet Robert Louis Stevenson, who noted long ago that "it is always better to travel than to arrive."

One last thing. Although it took me 57 Google clicks -- both paid and unpaid -- to find out that Stevenson is the author of the above quote, I'm a wiser, deeper, better-educated person because of it and Google now has a few more hard-earned dollars in its coffers.

Why would Microsoft want to destroy such a beautiful win-win relationship?

Steve Baldwin is editor-in-chief at Didit, an agency for search engine marketing and auctioned media management based in New York. You can reach Steve at

Search Insider for Monday, June 8, 2009:

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