When Microsoft brought out its Bing search engine — oops, sorry: decision engine — in 2009, the response from most of the online community was underwhelming. It was widely regarded among members of the community as just another upgrade of Microsoft’s Live Search with yet another new name (it had previously been called Windows Live Search and before that, MSN Search), and nobody outside Microsoft was getting very excited about it.

Oh, I did hear many comments about how nice the homepage was, featuring a showcase for (sometimes stunning) photographic images that changed daily. But in practical usage, how many serious searchers actually visit a search engine’s homepage often, or ever? I used Google many times per day, but I hadn’t seen its home page in ages; it’s just far more convenient to have a search toolbar on your browser or an address toolbar on your taskbar (or, in Windows 7, to add a Search the Internet link to the Start menu).

Starting out with a Bing, not a bang

Even if you do visit its homepage regularly, a search tool has to have more than just a pretty face. And Bing did offer some cool new features and a more visual interface than other search engines, with more images incorporated into the query results. Direct comparison of Bing and Google at the time of its debut showed it to be more user friendly in performing certain types of searches.

However, the biggest obstacle to Bing’s success was the fact that most of us already had a search provider with which we were perfectly happy. Google had more than 81% of the search market when Bing made its debut, and Bing came in with a little over 5%.

Now, a slow start is nothing new for Microsoft, and in fact the slow and steady approach has worked for the company on numerous occasions, with products such as IE, NT Server, and Office starting out with low market share against then-behemoths Netscape, NetWare, and WordPerfect and coming to dominate the browser, server, and office productivity spaces. And in fact, by August of this year, Google was down under 65% and Bing was up to almost 29% (if you count Yahoo, which is powered by Bing).

Statistics can be tricky things. According to comScore, Bing is currently trending downward, with only 26.1% of the search market in October. On the other hand, the recent stats from Hitwise seem to show the opposite, with Bing gaining slightly in October and Google falling a bit.

Windows of opportunity

Being a Microsoft fan, I tried Bing when it came out and wanted to like it, but I kept going back to Google. That’s because, sadly, when it came to technical topics, Google’s search results were just far more relevant. I spend my days researching and writing about tech topics, so I stuck with Google for work. I did find that Bing was good for more “leisure-oriented” searches such as restaurants and travel information.

I wasn’t the only reluctant Googler. At a gathering of Microsoft MVPs, the majority indicated that they still used Google as their primary search engine, even after Bing had been out for a year.

But then, several months ago, something happened. I started noticing that the search methods that had formerly yielded excellent results were now falling short. Google changed their algorithms and the “improvement” was, for me at least, a big step backward. I used to be able to quickly find almost anything I wanted pertaining to technology with Google, but now, not so much.

Not that Bing is much better — but now it’s about equal. I switch back and forth between the two, and I still often come away frustrated. Others are unhappy with the changes, too, as indicated by a myriad of blog posts and forum comments.

It seems to me that this is a perfect opportunity for Bing to increase its market share, if Microsoft will just seize it. With so many loyal Google users now becoming dissatisfied customers, the time is right for Bing to give dedicated searchers what they want. And what do we want? I can tell you what I want: results that match my query, with the least fuss and muss possible.

If I do a search on “Japan” and then click the “News” link, I want to see news about Japan. That used to happen with Google; now I see news about chimp attack victim Charla Nash’s face transplant, U.S. deficit panel failure, and a University of California police chief being put on leave after pepper spraying. In other words, I get random top news instead of news about the search term that I was searching. If I do the same thing on Bing, it gives me “Japan Oct exports disappoint,” “Japan’s GREE sues rival game firm DeNA for $13 million,” and other Japan-related news stories.

If I click on one of those stories and then click the Back button on my browser, I want to go back to my search results to try a different story. That’s what I get with Bing, but now (a change that just occurred recently) if I do that in Google, I get taken back to the Google homepage instead of to my previous search results. Why?

These are some of the reasons I’m using Bing more often and Google less. Microsoft needs to play up these differences and forge ahead with new features (without breaking the current ones) that Google doesn’t have, to pick up more unhappy Google users.

Socializing search

One place that I’ve found myself turning when both Google and Bing have failed me (an all-too-frequent occurrence now) is to my social networks. More and more often, I find myself simply asking, “Does anyone have a good resource for [insert topic of choice]?” and getting back some useful replies that the search engines didn’t turn up.

My friend Jason Hiner wrote an interesting piece last week, called “Search Can’t Scale without Social, and Bing Has Facebook and Twitter on Its Side,” that takes this idea of socialized search even further. I believe he’s right that the sheer volume of data on the web dictates a “new generation” of search technology. Google excelled, for a long time, at the old way. But Microsoft’s close relationship with Facebook — which is still, despite the efforts of Google+, the most ubiquitous social network — could give it a big advantage in incorporating social into search.

Go “all in”

Microsoft popularized the term “going all in” with regard to the cloud. Web search is all about finding things in the cloud, and in order to give Google a real run for its money, Microsoft needs to be “all in” on the search front. By all appearances, the company is committed to Bing — despite reports that Bing loses money to the tune of almost two billion dollars per quarter. Microsoft continues to invest money and resources in making search work better; most recently, they spent around $70 million for VideoSurf, a video-searching technology that can scan videos hosted on the web and index them by content instead of relying on tags. With the amount of video content on the web increasing rapidly, this could give Bing an important advantage.

The time has never been better for Microsoft to make real inroads in the search game. I hope they recognize that and keep up the pressure. A serious competition between Bing and Google will make both better and benefit all users of the web.

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