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Bing: What Would Sun Tzu Tell Microsoft?

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 1, 2009

The blogosphere is filled with postings about Bing, Microsoft’s new search engine that they hope will compete more successfully with Google for search share.  This is another such posting about Bing, but I hope to walk down a different path by talking about the strategy Microsoft is using and why it could work instead. 

There is a natural tendency to want to view Bing versus Google.  That’s the deathmatch-cage fight the world wants to watch.  But it isn’t a Google killer because as I have already said, search isn’t broken.  BING: “Bing Is Not Google”.  As Seth Godin says, you can’t be the next Google because there already is one called Google.  Despite all of the efforts in the blogosphere to position it head-on against Google (heck, even Google made an immediate counterattack with Wave and free Android phones), it isn’t designed to be a Google-killer either.  Yet. 

Instead of making a direct frontal assault, Microsoft is making a sort of mincing attack on a nearby (emphasis on nearby) flank.  That flank involves a series of four specially targeted domains where the ad revenue is strong and Bing can try to add serious value.  Bing has identified its own special kinds of searches that it can do a lot better by presenting the information in ways that make it more efficient for particular tasks.  Charlene Li  has an excellent write up on how they’ve beefed up shopping, local news, travel, and health.  Apparently even The Woz loved the demo.

Here is my problem:  by neither making a true frontal assault, nor attacking far away from the epicenter of the action, Microsoft may have selected the worst of all worlds for their strategy.  It isn’t different enough to be revolutionary and to avoid the Google comparisons, and it isn’t “better enough”  to beat Google in those comparisons with any permanence.  People seem to think that if only some competitor can provide a few more relevant search results a little higher on the list than Google, they can unseat Google.  But this is not the case.  Search is organic.  It mostly works, but people are used to the idea that Search is not the answer, it is a Journey.  In other words, you have to look at a lot of results to get what you want in many cases.  And when you don’t, what are the chances Bing will be better than Google often enough?

Bing responds by saving you some steps on that journey in these specialized search areas, and by just trying to do essentially the same as Google elsewhere.  Do I really need another search engine for that?  Is it really that hard for Google to add those innovations to its own service.  My answer is “no” to both questions.   Consider needing another search engine.  For example, I have a lot of short searches that I know Google gets right 99% of the time.  If I want to know a definition, it is faster to type the term followed by “wikipedia” into Google than it is to go to Wikipedia itself.  Google does the right thing.  Who is that person?  Type their name followed by “linkedin”.  The right stuff pops up.  Bing or any other search engine can’t do much better on those kinds of searches. 

All this value add to specialized searches for shopping, local news, travel, and health is also a bit funky.  Now I have to remember which things I like Bing better for, and which things I prefer Google for.  But before I even bother doing that, I have to use Bing enough to be convinced it really is better on one or more of those areas.  It’s too easy just to stick with Google and not worry about it.

This brings me to Sun Tzu and military strategy.  Microsoft wants to make a near-frontal assault on Google with Bing.  It’s the way they think.  All or nothing.  Because they’ve been at it for years with no progress to show for it, we know they are radically weaker than Google.  15 years of futility says Henry Blodget via Techmeme.  A search engine that sometimes gives a little better results on the first page or two will not help them to win.

Sun Tzu and most military strategists will argue that the weaker opponent must not make a frontal assault on the strong.  Attack them where they don’t expect you.  Lull them into false complacency by being absent from the apparent battle.  Sun Tzu says:

Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places where you are not expected.

You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended.

So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.

Microsoft could not ask for better advice in the search engine wars.

Uber business guru Michael Porter spells out the terrain of this out flanking business combat situation by saying there are really only three successful competitive positions.  You can own the best product.  This is the premium position.  Google owns this hill.  You can be the low cost provider.  This is a very successful antidote to not having the best product.  Not clear who out there sells ads with a better value than Google (i.e. cheaper for an equivalent result), but that would be a great position.  Lastly, you can serve some consituency better.  This is the vertical market strategy.  

Bing tries to follow this vertical specialization road a bit, but just can’t help being a general purpose search engine.  Instead of trying to circumvent Google’s search, why not stake out these destinations and have Google search driving traffic to them?  How to do that? 

One answer would be to build Bing’s technology into places where it can add real value, perhaps by making some acquisitions instead of wasting the money on frontal assault marketing campaigns.  You want to own shopping, local news, travel, and health?  Figure out which web properties add the most value and either acquire or partner with them to use Bing as their search.  Companies forget that partnerships can be an effective barrier to entry if they are exclusive.  Microsoft certainly has a war chest for such things.  Imagine if they wanted to make food one of the areas Bing specializes in.  They could have partnered with Zagat and Open Table (newly IPO’d).  Add some mapping and other functions and you probably have the all-time best resource for foodies to figure out where they want to eat.  Similar possibilities exist for all of the areas Microsoft selected to be Bing’s special power alleys. 

Local news?  Why not pool a collection of Microsoft technologies to create a superior news platform for the local papers?  Everyone has read how the web is killing newspapers.  Shouldn’t they want to partner with a company like Microsoft that offers them some real value?

And who already owns a bunch of properties worth lashing up to Bing?  Why Yahoo, of course.  So maybe Bing’s real target is (or will soon be) Yahoo, as Larry Dignan suggests.

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3 Responses to “Bing: What Would Sun Tzu Tell Microsoft?”

  1. Alexander Ainslie said

    Another lucid pov! I agree with a lot of what you are saying on this subject. I think the trouble is that MSFT over the years has become a panamax like supertanker (slow reaction time) and not the swift boat required to successfully navigate todays troubled waters in an agile manner. The danger is that new entrants can deliver a better application, faster than MSFT that addresses some of the points in the bottom 1/3 of your post. One such company could be http://www.siri.com which I’ve had my eye on for a while now. They also address a problem that I am encountering (and I am sure many others are too) on the iPhone & iTouch which is trying to figure our which of the apps I have installed does what for the task I wish to accomplish.
    @AAinslie

  2. […] Bing: What Would Sun Tzu Tell Microsoft? « SmoothSpan Blog […]

  3. schlafly said

    For that Wikipedia search, typing “wiki” works just as well as typing “Wikipedia”.
    It works with Google and Yahoo, at least.
    Typing “imdb” is another good one, for movie lookups.

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