Interview: Microsoft’s ‘Not Walking Away From Search’

Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) is brushing off last week’s Breakingviews suggestion it should sell Bing, which lost $2.6 billion last year.

Bing director Stefan Weitz tells paidContent it is changing its approach to search – but not getting out of the game…

That approach boils down to two emerging strategies, Weitz says…

1. Search as service

“When they do a standard search, people end up using five to 10 different resources in the completion of these tasks,” Weitz says. “But, according to our research, 58 percent of heavy users want to complete tasks inside the search engine. “That’s a big jump from a few years previously. Google found the same thing recently. So we’re taking Bing to a place you can actually accomplish things and do things, rather than send you off to those sites.”

It’s a paradigmatic shift in the historical concept of a search engine as merely a signpost to the rest of the web, a sort of land-grab, and one which both Bing and Google are moving on…

Google is buying vertical search sites and rebadging them as its own (the latest being Google Hotel Finder, formed from its ITA Software acquisition). But Weitz says: “They’re doing a lot of acquisition, we mostly do partnerships.” Although Bing acquired Farecast to power its flight search, it also has deals through which sites like FanSnap, Open Table and Parking Finder power ticket, restaurant and car parking services on Bing. “They get exposure to Bing’s massive funnel. We don’t have to go through these acquisitions.”

Exposure is fine for the lucky chosen partners, but those partners’ rivals may come to feel aggrieved if, say, a Bing search for “flights” returns Bing’s own, in-page flight search box ahead of their own URL. In fact, it’s this sort of thing which helped prompt the European Commission’s current antitrust inquiry in to Google (NSDQ: GOOG). Weitz counters: “We can enable many partners to enable the same type of query. We don’t have to lock in to one particular provider.”

Microsoft, which bought 1.6 percent of Facebook in 2007, injected Facebook Likes, Shares, user profiles and more in to Bing search results in May.

“When we initially designed Bing, the computer scientists said we can help people accomplish things using algorithms and maths,” Weitz says. “But 90 percent of folks say they seek advice from family and friends in amy decision-making process. And, when they can’t find that advice, they delay making a decision. So we’re humanising search; it mimics how people make decisions in real life.”

This social/search nexus is an opportunity Google, too, is approaching with Google Social Search, Google Plus and its Like equivalent, +1. “They weren’t able to get the same access to Facebook profiles that we have, so they built their own system, which is a fairly traditional thing they’ve done,” Weitz tells paidContent. “Google+ is a nice job, but it’s still a fraction of what Facebook has in terms of engagement.”

“They recognise this (social plus search) is also the key. They recognise, on task completion and social, that they’re behind, but they’re doing a lot of great work to catch up. This is not just a bolt-on for us – that’s where we differ a bit.”

Google also last month yanked tweets from its Realtime search, after its deal with Twitter apparently ended. But tweets remain on Bing’s social and news pages, and Weitz suggests Bing would renew: “We still have that data right now and find it valuable – you’ll see that for a while going forward. The fact Google didn’t choose to renew that deal is interesting. The power to tap in to the global zeitgeist, that microdata is very interesting. I’m not sure why they choose not to renew that deal.

Big picture

Breakingviews’ advice – which came along with a suggestion that Facebook and Bing’s cooperation should be consummated by Facebook swallowing the search engine – seems to have caused ripples.

But: “Search is not something we’re going to walk away from,” Weitz says. “This is an entry point to the broader web. It’s a high-definition proxy for the digital world. The web is something that has described our world to a remarkable degree of detail. The ability for us to create something that can leverage all of these descriptions is extremely valuable.”