Ballmer touts Bing; analysts still wary about its future

Microsoft CEO lists Bing successes to Web 2.0 Summit audience, but many wonder if it can really take on Google

SAN FRANCISCO -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer Tuesday touted the success of the Bing search engine in the back yard of rival and search king Google.

Ballmer, speaking at the Web 2.0 Summit here, said the search engine has "got our muscle up in relevance" as it grew from a 7% U.S. market share after its launch in the summer of 2009 to about 15% today. "It sets the stage for reinventing the category."

Analysts, though, question whether Bing is really moving into a position where it can reinvent the search category so Google is not the highly dominant player?

While analysts agree that Bing has gained significant market share since its launch. they add that Microsoft is a long way off from putting a dent in Google's reign.

"The issue is that Google remains good enough and you can't take out a dominant player by bringing forward a competent product because people just don't break their habits easily," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group.

"You have to motivate people to change and so far Microsoft has been unwilling to resource this effort to a level that would assure success. They are spending about a tenth of what is needed to actually put Google at risk so they are just chewing up their own resources that would likely be better spent in an area where they are more competent," he added.

With its search partnership with Yahoo, Microsoft gained some momentum but remains planted behind Yahoo and Google, which remains the easy leader. In September, Google handled 65.3% of U.S. searches, while Bing had 14.7%, according to comScore, an Internet tracking company.

Bing and Google each have small increases and drops in market share from month to month, but Google has not lost significant share.

"The most significant fact about search market is that Google's share has not declined and some data suggest that it is still growing," said Hadley Reynolds, an analyst with IDC.

"So Microsoft -- and Yahoo -- if there still is a Yahoo in six months -- will not be really moving the needle in the market until Bing and its partners start to dent Google's lead. This probably means reaching a share of searches in the 35% to 40% range," Reynolds added.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said it will likely be some time before Microsoft sees any real payoff from the significant sums it has spent on Bing.

"I don't think [Bing] is profitable or close to profitable," Gottheil noted. "But it has grown and is likely to continue to grow. It probably will be profitable eventually, but I don't think it will ever pay back its investment."

However, Ballmer on Tuesday was quick to tout Bing's partnerships with not only Yahoo but social networking powerhouses Facebook and Twitter. That was a slap in the face to Google, which never got a real-time search deal with Facebook and recently ended its real-time agreement with Twitter.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo told the Web 2.0 Summit audience this week that he has been unable to reach an agreement with Google but still holds out hope that it could happen.

The faltering negotiations have to be sweet news to Ballmer and Microsoft, analysts said.

"It's like Microsoft is in a big-time wrestling match with Google ... and Ballmer is grabbing for any hand-hold he can leverage -- in this case, Microsoft's unexpected lead in social search," said Reynolds.

"Because of the ... struggle between the social players and Google, it has been a favorable climate for Microsoft to get partnerships with Facebook and Twitter. Now Microsoft can deliver socially-informed search experiences through Bing that Google can't, and won't be able to until, or if, Google+ becomes a truly significant alternate social network, or until Facebook and Twitter have a change of heart and start selling them their data."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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