Wash. — In Microsoft’s expensive, decadelong battle
against Google’s search engine, no detail is too
Connell, a Microsoft vice president in charge of the
engineering side of the 4,000-person team that builds
the company’s Bing Web search, takes work home with
him every weekend.
reviews lists of common queries people type into the
search boxes at Google.com and Bing.com. His team has
spliced the universe of possible search requests into 40
areas, like nearby places or news. Those categories
break up into 152 sub-segments.
some, Bing displays more helpful results, he says.
Others favor Google. Each is a battleground.
want to be the best," Connell says. "We
believe in our technology."
much the rest of the world believes in Bing is up for
one measure, the search engine now executes a record one
out of every five searches made on desktop computers in
the U.S., a milestone Microsoft Chief Executive Satya
Nadella touted last month in a meeting with Wall Street
analysts. But Bing’s standing internationally, and in
fast-growing mobile search, is a fraction of that.
executives and outside observers say Bing has gone from
the butt of jokes and awkward product placement in
movies to a tool comparable to Google’s in terms of
its technology. The calls to shelve the business or sell
it to a competitor have quieted. Microsoft has
integrated Bing’s underlying data-crunching technology
into its other software, and plans to tie it closely to
its upcoming Windows 10 operating system.
remains to be seen whether Microsoft can leverage this
changing perception into a profit or seriously challenge
Google’s status as the Web’s default search engine.
was officially unveiled six years ago June 1, emerging
from earlier, largely unsuccessful forays into search.
like many companies, was inconsistent in its early
response to the growth of the Internet. In 1995,
then-CEO Bill Gates wrote a now-famous memo exhorting
employees to convert Microsoft’s tools so that they
could be used for the Web.
that meant for search wasn’t immediately clear.
Executives wavered on whether the company should build
its own Web search technology, or acquire tools built by
competitors. Microsoft’s first search engines relied
on technology to crawl the Web from Inktomi and, later,
the Mountain View, Calif., company founded by graduate
students studying in a Stanford University computer
science building named for Gates, didn’t have such
hesitation, quickly rising to dominate Web search. In
2003, Microsoft, based outside Seattle, approached
Google about a potential partnership or takeover, The
New York Times reported at the time.
pursued a public stock listing instead. Microsoft opted
to build its own search platform.
back, that was a big decision," Sally Salas, then
an employee with Microsoft’s nascent search group.
"And it was the right decision. It took us a long
Search, named for Microsoft’s popular Web portal,
launched in 2005. A year later, a wholesale rebranding
of Microsoft’s online services dubbed the engine
Windows Live Search.
47, developed an early interest in technology, growing
up in a home with a computer, but, in peculiar Irish
fashion, no telephone. A hobbled Irish economy with
double-digit unemployment didn’t offer much use for
was a recession country." Technology, he says,
"was a way out."
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a stint working as a programmer of currency trading
tools in London, Connell took a job with Microsoft,
shuffling through progressively bigger roles in the
company’s online services arm. He ultimately guided
the engineering of search as the company prepared to
roll out Bing.
day before Bing’s unveiling, Connell asked a developer
to write a few lines of code that would redirect users
to the live page from the test site engineers had been
using. A blank space was left for the name of the site,
still a secret even to employees after months spent
vetting potential names.
already taken or having an unintended offensive meaning
were tossed (executives evidently decided that an
antiquated definition for "Bing" in Scotland
as a heap of mine waste wasn’t a deal-breaker).
was actually the thing that I was most nervous about,
that the redirect wouldn’t happen. It was" —
Connell rapped his fist on a wooden table — "your
marketing machine, which spends more than $1 billion
each year, kicked into action to promote Bing. Connell
and his team worked to iron out the kinks in a search
engine that, at first, spit out search results
noticeably worse than Google.
was a time when Bing launched that it was almost
embarrassing," said Danny Sullivan, founding editor
of Search Engine Land and a longtime observer of the
industry. "Even Bing people would tell you they
were kind of embarrassed."
months after Bing’s launch, and after the breakdown of
high-profile merger talks, Microsoft and Yahoo signed a
10-year agreement that made Bing’s technology the
underlying search engine for desktop searches on Yahoo
sites. Yahoo’s search technology, and more than a few
employees, including advertising chief David Ku,
migrated to Redmond.
sites accounted for 8.4 percent of U.S. desktop search
traffic when Bing debuted in 2009, less than half the
share of Yahoo and well behind Google’s 65 percent,
according to comScore.
share has steadily increased since, to 20.2 percent in
April, gaining mostly at the expense of Yahoo, as well
as fading search portals Ask.com and AOL. Google’s
share has remained relatively steady. (Put another way,
Connell says, "Google was growing until we launched
bottom line? The technology improved, Sullivan said.
"Now, it’s a credible alternative to Google."
CEO Marissa Mayer, critical of the search deal with
Microsoft, told The Wall Street Journal that the
renegotiated pact sealed last month was structured to
"put more pressure on Microsoft to make the product
advertising, a $59 billion business for Google last
year, hasn’t been strong enough to make Bing
profitable for Microsoft. The company’s online
division lost nearly $18 billion from 2006 to 2013.
(Beginning in mid-2013, Microsoft lumped Bing and some
other businesses into another unit, obscuring its
financial performance since.)
officials have set a target for Bing to break even on an
annual basis in the company’s fiscal year beginning in
July, a goal Connell affirmed without hesitation.
"2016," he said. "For sure."
Bing still suffers from much more limited exposure
globally. Surveys of international search market share
put Microsoft and Yahoo each in the low single digits,
and Google at more than 80 percent.
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has been making the investments, but Google is still
driving the boat globally," said Mike McGuire, a
mobile analyst with researcher Gartner.
drawn the scrutiny of antitrust regulators in Europe,
but it’s unclear whether Microsoft stands to benefit
devices present another hurdle. People are increasingly
searching the Web from smartphones and tablets, realms
dominated by Google and Apple. Researcher eMarketer
expects the amount of advertising dollars targeting
mobile searches in the U.S. to surpass desktop queries
for the first time this year.
you’re not the owner of those operating systems, you
have to have something incredibly compelling that makes
people say ‘I have to have that product.’"
Connell said. "We have to be realistic; that’s a
hard thing to do. But we’re going to do that."
that product be Cortana? Microsoft’s voice-activated
digital assistant, powered by Bing-built algorithms,
will eventually be released for Google and Apple
devices, the company announced this week.
Bing was bleeding cash in its early years, some Wall
Street analysts wondered aloud why Microsoft seemed
determined to throw money down the drain to challenge
Google in the business of crawling the Web and
the basics behind search technology — building
algorithms that can gauge and react to human intent —
have become crucial for the future of computing,
is becoming almost like a user interface," said
Walter Pritchard, a software analyst with Citigroup in
San Francisco. "I think they have no choice"
but to continue to develop it.
launched in 2014 for Windows Phone, symbolizes search’s
evolution from typing a term to something more. The
digital assistant is designed to help people track their
interests, proactively suggesting events and bringing up
reminders or warnings of heavy traffic or weather.
than (people) always searching for information, we can
give it to them at the point where we believe they need
it," said Salas, now a program manager at Bing.
competing "Now" product performs a similar
function. So, too, does Apple’s Siri, which, Microsoft
officials point out, relies on Bing for its own Web
is finding its way into Microsoft’s own products, too.
Its algorithms are the search tool in Microsoft’s
Web-accessed file storage and Office programs, and are
slated to be integrated into Windows 10 through Cortana.
you want to be a player (across the) ecosystem, you need
this technology," Connell said. "We know we
have a long way to go, but the team gets these moments
along the way that inspire us. If we can get here, yea,
we can get there."