Search engine wars: Bing to the rescue?
As Australia's tense stand-off with Google over the News Media Bargaining Code continues, a tech giant watching from the sidelines has spotted an opportunity - and reached out to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison with an offer of help.
Microsoft's chief executive Satya Nadella called Morrison to tell him that the company's Bing search engine could fill the gap if Google follows through on its threat to pull Google Search from the Australian market if the Code progresses in its current form.
"I can tell you, Microsoft's pretty confident, when I spoke to Satya," Morrison said, relating some of his conversation with Nadella."
"We just want the rules in the digital world to be the same that exist in the real world, in the physical world," Morrison added.
The idea of Bing replacing Google as the number one search engine is laughable to many. Here's how seasoned tech journo Bill Bennett responded when I tweeted news of Microsoft's offer over the weekend.
I literally hadn't used Bing for years until I logged on yesterday to see what, if anything, had changed. I Googled, scratch that, Binged myself to see what came up. A series of results appeared - very similar to Google's results, but in a slightly different order. I could live with that. Other searches delivered very similar results to Google as well. But those who have tried living with Bing longterm in favour of Google see its deficiencies in stark relief.
When Wired reporter Brian Barrett ditched Google for Bing as an experiment back in 2018, he found the search engine delivered pretty good search results, but that its approach to the search engine environment was frustrating.
"It kept me cloistered within Bing, when all I wanted-what I explicitly told it, with every query-was to go somewhere else," he wrote.
"In search, the journey is not the reward; it's just a journey. Bing does not always get you where you want to go, though. In fact, it keeps you locked into Bing in strange and frustrating ways. And it's that, more than anything, that sent me back to Google."
Not much has changed. When you search for videos in Bing, the results, inevitably, show the videos on Youtube. But rather than just sending you to Youtube, the world's largest video streaming website, it displays them in a weird Bing wrap-around interface. Obviously, Google has the advantage of owning Youtube. Perhaps if it didn't control that particular cash cow, it would do the same thing.
A different search - Bing
But generally, Google Search excels due to two things - the power of delivering relevant results quickly, and its resistance to cluttering up the experience. It keeps things simple, knowing that by inserting a few adverts above the organic search results, it has a licence to print money.
According to Statcounter, Google Search has 94% of the search market in New Zealand, compared to 3.7% for Bing and around 1% for DuckDuckGo, the search engine that makes a feature of privacy - it doesn't track your search history. The market shares are similar in Australia, so Microsoft would have a huge chance to scoop up search business if Google was to withdraw.
Some argue that Google leaving the market would be devastating for local businesses trying to reach customers through search engine advertising and optimising their websites to be discovered by Google. But Microsoft is correct in asserting it could largely fill that gap and Google's departure could spur other innovation by local tech companies and news publishers. The demand for content is still there after all.
It would be a shame if it came to that because Google's ecosystem of apps is very useful - the likes of Google Docs and Gmail are the go-to tools for small businesses looking to contain costs and seeking a stripped-down, user-friendly experience.
One of the most prominent things on Bing's homepage is news results listed from media outlets such as RNZ and Newsroom. But instead of sending readers directly to those websites, Microsoft sends them to MSN.com where it has a licence to publish content from those news outlets. That different approach could see MSN become a bigger presence as a news aggregator in Google's absence, a more full-fledged version of Google News, which only displays snippets of news media content. But how will publishers react to the idea of MSN attracting more traffic that would typically have gone to their own websites.
Will Microsoft offer compelling licencing terms to publishers? It is not subject to the code which only applies to Facebook and Google, but it would be if Bing suddenly became Australia's largest search engine.
That prospect raises as many questions as it answers. The bottom line is that we could get by without Google Search, but would we, as Bill suggests, simply be trading a new monopoly for an old one?
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