Bad Decision, Engine: The Problems with Marketing Search (and why Bing needs the tech vote to survive)

linus torvaldsThere was a time when I was a Linux fanboy – dual booting with LILO to a plethora of software options in Windowz, and a plethora of … ummm, different ways to maintain my computer, in Linux. By virtue of my attempts (failed later in life, thankfully) to become a pure geek, I acquired the essential, if adolescent, hatred of all things Microsoft. It was for the right reasons at the time, namely, my genius coder friend swore up and down that M$ couldn’t write a decent compiler (do you see the life from which I narrowly escaped, do you see?).

So it is with a hint of a nostalgic grimace that I wade into the search results of the enemy camp’s engine – charmingly, disarmingly named, Bing. You have to admit it’s a cute domain. Ringing with a clear lack of monolithicism… if that’s a word. It’s also pretty universally meaningless, non-culture-specific, difficult if not impossible to misspell, and four, sweet, golden letters long. This blank-canvas, mega-carrot-gem of the domain world was undoubtedly chosen to be so perfectly open to interpretation, one imagines, in order to give the Bing marketing team more time to try and figure out what the hell to do with it.

What Bing is Vying for

all american pieSearch engine share is usually thought of as a portion of a pie – the pie being all of the searches going on from any search engine by people in a geographic area, like America. But any Internet novice knows that ending up on a Search Engine Results Page (SERP) can happen in more ways than one. You could realize you want to search for something, then:

  • Choose to go to a search engine by typing in the search engine’s URL
  • Choose to go to a search engine by clicking a Bookmark to get there
  • Use the most obvious search box in your browser to perform the search, using the default selected engine
  • Use the search feature of whichever application you’re running (if you’re not in a web browser) – and you may end up on a SERP
  • Use a site-specific search if your query ought to be answered by the site you’re currently on – this can sometimes direct you to a proprietary search, and sometimes to a branded major search engine SERP (even if the SERP only includes entries from the search-box site)

Or sometimes you might click on a link that points at a SERP. Any other ways to get there… did I miss any? (no, people who search Yahoo for ‘google’ and Google for ‘yahoo’ don’t count, because I could not bear to live in a world where those people count for anything) These range from brand-active (typing in the search engine URL) to brand-passive (clicking a link), and some in-between options. Other than actively choosing an engine, they are most commonly thrust upon you via default settings of the search-box in a browser, tool or toolbar (set by the developer/marketer/tool owner etc, or sometimes a power user). All-in-all there are not a great variety of ways to get to a SERP. Other than fighting the software wars of default search engines in browsers –and while MS may have the muscle, once bitten twice antitrusting, so it’s hard to imagine them integrating Bing too heavily into Windows 7 – Microsoft’s real challenge is trying to gain traction on the other factors: what choices people make.

The Real Demographics

What it boils down to is that there are two demographics of decision makers here:

  • Younger, computer literate influencers
  • Older, computer-confidence-dependent, the influenceable

People my age (earlier thirties people, if you hurry up and read this) began using Google because we saw it emerge as legitimately better in a search world choking on spam. We still use it now because it has held up, and we’ve used it since the beginning. People younger than me use Google simply because they’ve never known an alternative. People older than me use Google because people younger than them told them to. That’s the world you’re dealing with Microsoft.

How the Young Influence

The young influencers do everything from install Google toolbars for parents to send out Gmail invitations to friends and co-workers and help people find things online when they’re having trouble. They’re Google fans for all the reasons we’re so familiar with, the same reason everyone loves the epic non-brand brand. They don’t advertise for Google, in their minds, by recommending it, because Google isn’t a product that costs or demands anything. It is as close to a noncommercial entity in people’s minds as any hugely profitable multi-national corporation the world has ever seen, with the possible exception of Disney. Winning the hearts and minds of the young influencers is hindered by Microsoft’s history, but it really only negatively affects Geeks, and Geeks have proven time and time again, if they’re loyal to anything it’s technological superiority – so if MS makes a better product, they will use it, and all of the old default influencing behaviour will come back. The problem is, if Google has anything to say about it, it will never come back the same way again … When we all told our parents back in 2003 to try Google it was because they were calling us at college, frustrated, basically asking us to look something up for them online because they couldn’t find it themselves. We pushed them to Google, they ate it up, hungry for any advice from their mind-bogglingly-computer-competent children, and as hungry as anyone for a reasonably useful search engine. Do college kids still get those calls? Do people still get those frustrations, in general, or is Google doing the seemingly impossible, and evolving as fast as the Internet? Just as important as any trickledown from young to old, the geekier the young influencers, the higher the chance they will fuel adaptation laterally – by telling their peers. Non-geeks have no cause to send a friend the URL of a ‘better’search engine until the comparative, original search engine fails in a noteworthy way. Geeks on the other hand don’t need one technology to fail in order to adopt a new one, they have a much better sense for perceiving the inherent advantages of one tool over another. This is actually the heart of it – because if geeks can spread a technology laterally, then the trickledown will cover a lot more geography.

When a Search Fails

failed search The last vestige of hope for the vestigial Microsoft lies in that little gap – that place in time and mental space – that is a failed search attempt. If there are people out there getting frustrated, not being able to find what they want, Microsoft has to have branded Bing well enough that instead of simply reforming their query to the almighty Google, they realize there might be an alternative. This is obviously an absolutely essential goal for Microsoft, regardless of demographic. Most advertising should be able to address this goal pretty directly.

Affecting the Influencable

Older people aren’t going to go to Bing for no reason – it’s not an episode of Corner Gas, they’re not promised a laugh, it’s not a destination at all, it’s a tool. As I’ve said already, I believe the only ways to gain market-share in the unsavvy demographic are:

  • Become present enough in people’s lives that when a search attempt fails, Bing as an alternative comes to mind
  • Converting the influencers so that when the influencable seek help, they might be recommended Bing

The first point is where the 100 million dollars needs to go, in an awareness and branding campaign. But if Microsoft’s past branding commercials are any indication, they are incapable of actually saying anything other than pure generalities.

How might Microsoft market to this demographic? Straightforward marketing messages that say things like ‘Try Bing –it’s a better search engine’, would be a good start. And in fact, it’s aaaaaalmost what Microsoft decided.

Except, some marketing genius decided that instead of presenting Bing as competitors to Google by calling it a new or better ‘search engine’, they decided to try and coin a term to differentiate Bing as a different type of product, a ‘decision engine’.

Bad Decision, Engine

This, simply put, was a massive, massive mistake. In one fell swoop Microsoft went from showing the world that there was an alternative to Google to making it look as though Bing was something different than Google. Notice how subtly, yet fundamentally, those two points differ. “When you need to make a decision, use Bing”, boils down to “But if you want to just, you know, look something up or search the Internet, keep using Google”. Sigh. Don’t play the nomenclature game Microsoft, it’s dangerous and the truth of the matter is, you just wasted a crap-load of money, and if you continue to call Bing a ‘decision engine’, you may jeopardize all of your other efforts to gain SEARCH market share. You built Bing to fill an existing need right? Now get it through your skull: the need your product fills is that of a search engine, not that of a decision engine, because there is no existing need for a decision engine. There is no such thing, as a decision engine. Hell Babbage’s difference engine is more real. Nobody needs one of those either. Just throw up a nice, sensible commercial with an older Midwestern couple getting frustrated at their computer, then calling their son at college to ask for help because they can’t find anything on the internet anymore, it’s all spam. “ahhh Mom haven’t you tried yet? It’s a better search engine.”

“It’s a better search engine.”

Why did you not choose that as your slogan? Tell me. Just give me a ring if you’re too embarrassed to write it in the comments, but I godda know. MS, don’t you get it? The golden opportunity of having a rival who is synonymous with search? You don’t have to say “It’s a better search engine than Google”, because there is no search engine other than Google, so effectively “It’s a better search engine” does the same thing! Do you just think that’s an insignificant opportunity? This is how you get into the brains of the public for that all important failed-search moment. Do you just not get it? Can you tell you’re kind of pissing me off? Connect with your audience Microsoft – the older, need-internet-hand-holding generation is not going to embrace the idea of a ‘decision engine’ , because they can’t relate to it conceptually. None of them have ever even taken the Internet seriously as a tool for contributing significantly to the decision making process, other than which airline tickets to choose. It’s a fact finding tool, I’ll make the decisions myself, once I’ve gathered the facts, thank you very much. Don’t try to be clever, don’t try to give people something they’ve never heard of, and barely understand, and then try to convince them they need it. Just give people a choice, and let them feel like they’re making it for reasons that make sense to them. And maybe hire a creative firm that understands the real world of the Internet a little bit, hm?

Affecting the Influential

This is more difficult, and it’s hard to know just how much attention Microsoft even wants to pay to the issue. MS are undoubtedly aware of the trickle down effect of tech-user adoption, and while they may have traditionally attacked the pyramid from the other end, IMHO they’ll have to address both sides to give Bing a shot. The young influential crowd is anti-Microsoft, anti-corporate conglomerate, anti-most-everything commercial, and hence, damn difficult to market to… with, you know, commercials. Google’s real genius lies in their nonchalant approach to communicating with their users (that is, everybody). They always manage to present things as a friendly peer-to-peer offering, asking their users to hey, just have a look at this real quick if you have a second sometime would ya? Kinda cool huh, unlimited free email? Ah go-on you can have one, and some exclusive invites too, but try to keep it on the downlow, we don’t want too many users at once k buddy? Thanks. Kinda nice yeah, that online document sharing? Uhhu, sfree. Kinda funky yeah, the whole Wave thing hm? Ohyeah you can have it. No woooories, you never have to actually buy anything from us Bra, we’re Google. Case in point:

  • MS launches a new search engine – 100 million dollar ad-campaign
  • Google launches a new search engine – puts a post up on its ugly-assed blogspot blog, asking if anyone wants to try it out in beta

Google puts its new ‘Caffeine’ engine on a stupid ugly, not repeatable out-loud URL, How commercial does that look? gcaf Which one would a geek be more likely to send laterally – to their friends, the fellow influencers? Google once again succeeds in presenting their products to geeks as something that don’t look or feel like products, but free tools that once again need to be passed along to friends, because they are once again as good as, or better than the current commercial alternative. This never pay us but we’ll always give you everything for free and treat you like a peer attitude is something you can’t achieve as an established brand – nobody has ever really done it before. At this point, I believe the relationship Google maintains with the public is well beyond Microsoft’s capabilities. The Bing brand is too young to engender anything resembling Google’s relationship with potential searchers, especially the most influential geeks. So what can they do instead? How about a straightforward mass-market campaign advertising Bing as a ‘technologically-advanced’ engine? It just might go a long way towards the not-too-geeky younger crowd considering it as an option when faced with a need for a search engine beyond Google, or with an alternative to offer mom when she calls. For the more hard-core geek crowd though, statistics speak. The type of campaign I would like to see to appeal to this specific and very important demographic should be something scientific, like some controlled double-blind tests of SERP quality. If Microsoft did enough testing on enough sub-demographics, they’ll eventually be able to come away with convincing, audience-specific stat-bytes like “75% of all Physics undergrads tested found better results quicker, with Bing in a blind test”. This may help to create awareness of Bing as a technologically robust search engine, but geek influencers are not as immune to advertising as they might wish. In preparing to write this article I started an IM conversation with an old friend of mine who does not work in the search industry. He is the quintessential geek influencer – currently working on his PhD in Chemistry at the University of Waterloo, he represents the exact mindset that Microsoft wants to claw its way into. The conversation could stand as pretty solid market research for Bing to consider, and so I’ve posted it in its entirety here – if you’re interested in the evolution of search market share, but like me are too saturated by the industry to gather a clear perspective from outside, it may be worth the read just for the unadulterated non-search-marketer’s viewpoint.

Microsoft, Buy Hire This Man

mac pc In the end, my old friend and I agree, well beyond search and Bing, Microsoft only really has one hope: Hire John Hodgeman – people love him. If you haven’t realized it yet Microsoft, everybody hates the cocky Mac guy, and everybody loves the adorable PC guy. He’s a stereotype yeah (like you poorly make reference to with your John lookalike in the youtube vid above), but that stereotype is of a humble, intelligent, non-flashy, likely quite helpful if you’ve got a problem, everyday guy. Make that what the PC is. Embrace it.

Naoise Osborne

Naoise Osborne

A former member of the Acquisio team, Naoise was the Search Engine Marketing Director at Catalytics, the services arm of Acquisio before that was sold off so that the company could focus more on developing the Acquisio platform. In his role at Catalytics, Naoise managed SEO strategy for agencies across North America. Today, Naoise is based in Montreal where he is a founding partner of AOD Media Group Inc., which specializes in SEO, analytics and Facebook marketing.

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