Bing Search Logo

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Everyone is staring hard at Bing, Microsoft's new search engine, and I mostly like what I see, with one exception. I've written before about the search engine conflict of interest between highlighting their own properties and providing the truly best answer. In the quest for ever more cash, search engines are presenting results that point to their own pages. What does that mean to the searcher and to the search marketer?

If you don't know what I am talking about, take a look at search results from any major search engine today. They often highlight Web properties owned by their parent company. Google shows its YouTube videos, Yahoo shows its Flickr photos, Ask.com shows its CitySearch results, each of which shows more of their own advertising. Yahoo's Tim Mayer has been refreshingly open about their goal: to keep searchers on their results pages for as long as possible.

Microsoft didn't start this trend, but Bing is certainly part of it. From the few searches that I did in health care, it seems like Bing is being a bit more aggressive in highlighting its own properties. Search for "arthritis" and see what you get. Here's the top result as of today:

Bing top result for arthritis

If you look closely, you can see that this is not the average search result--it's not the #1 result on merit. It's the top result because Microsoft has a deal with the Mayo Clinic to provide information on health conditions. I don't know which way the money flows, if at all, but this is a different way to get the top result than we've seen in the past. The other search engines favor their own properties but don't automatically slam them to the top of the list.

I'm not sure whether this is worse than what the other search engines do or not. Bing makes this search result look different than regular organic results, much the way Google pioneered distinguishing paid search results when the industry went through another major ethical dilemma. The other search engines often make their own properties blend in with the ones that really got their on merit.

This is not to say that those results are never there based on merit. Nor does it say that this is necessarily a bad experience for the searcher. Obviously, if searchers didn't click on these results, the technique would not work. And, taken to an extreme, if searchers begin to doubt the honesty of the results, a search engine is toast.

But the truth is that for many searches, such as "arthritis," the Mayo Clinic information doesn't seem any better or worse than say, the information from WebMD. But the WebMD information is far down the page for Bing, while it is near the top in Google.

Some of this is just the difference between how search rankings work across engines, but there's a larger point here. The truth is that if the Mayo Clinic information is featured, searchers are less likely to need the WebMD version, which is bad news for WebMD, but also for anyone whose search marketing strategy is based on content. Ask yourself what you'd do if you were WebMD. Wouldn't you be on the phone with Google, Yahoo!, and dozens of other search engines around the world to get your own deal like the one May has with Bing? It becomes an arms race where only the big and the connected get the special treatment.

If you think this affects only large businesses, think again. The more obscure the search keyword, the more likely that a small business, such as a local medical clinic, has prepared string helpful content that can win the battle of the search results. I searched for "osteomyelitis," a rare bone disease, and found the Cleveland Clinic rated highly by both Google and Bing. Because it is such a rare disease, there was no Mayo Clinic link for that keyword in Bing. But does anyone think that day won't be coming?

And don't breathe a sigh of relief if you're in a business other than health care. You can already see signs of this stuff in travel and shopping searches. It's likely that search engines are just working their way down the long tail, doing the most lucrative keywords first.

The simple fact is that all the search engines are looking to improve revenue and they are no longer going to be satisfied with merely selling ads for the searches. Now they want to sell ads for the results pages you click on, too. And that strategy favors large information providers, not small businesses. Where search was once one of the few forms of marketing where small businesses had a level playing field against large ones, I think that each day the field is tilting a bit more.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. There's only more to come.

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June 29, 2009





Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.

Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.

Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.






Comments(9)

If search engines are being biased toward their own results, it would suggest that a tool that aggregates results from multiple search engines would level the playing field. If a true aggregate tool could be built around an algorithm that weighted results based on their position in the major players in search, you would get true results.

If users are turned off by the major searches and their tendency to lead to be biased to results, it might be worth their while to try out something like a meta search engine that pulls results from various places on the web.
eZanga.com, an example of one such engine, does a pretty good job with relevant results and polices itself to not include duplicate results, which makes it a pretty enjoyable experience, I think.
I can see where the reliance on advertising profits can turn some searches into nothing but an ad machine. it could leave the door open for a few smaller search engines to make up ground if people are turned off by the direction top-tier engines are going.

Actually, Yahoo's been doing the same for over a year (not with artihritis, but try diabetes: http://search.yahoo.com/search;_ylt=A0geu62OZUpKLCMB5.NXNyoA?p=diabetes&y=Search&fr=yfp-t-102&fr2=sb-top&sao=1). Live Search was doing this too, prior to bing.

Hadn't seen the Yahoo! stuff, Tom--good point. I know that Live Search has been dabbling here, but I thought Bing has expanded it. Maybe they are unrelated but I am looking over Bing a lot harder than I ever looked over Live Search. Regardless, I am very concerned about this approach and i wonder where it will lead.

Yeah. Definitely seeing this more with Bing than what Live did. I think there's always concern, but as you mentioned, if it becomes a poor user experience the search engine starts losing market share. I think it's realistic to expect to see more and more searches that never leave the search engine's properties - good for the search engines, bad for other sites. The other thing I noticed about how bing handles their content - on the bottom of each article is a link back to the original source (link is followed and host pages are all indexable), so you're also talking about lending value (across all SEs) to large sites like mayoclinic, wikipedia and the other major sources. Even worse news for small sites. It's bothersome, but smaller site owners/operators have always had to lead innovation and adaption and really small sites (or at least small at the time) really pioneered the more creative link building strategies and uses of social media for site promotion, and then make adjustments as bigger players start making this more difficult. I guess I see this in much the same way: the focus will shift and new and better strategies will result (I hope :))

The fact that we can actualy search
the internet for anything is pretty cool.

google insists it searches are based on relevance but the results I've typically recieved have always perplexed me.

There's a long way to go, and this is "the wild wild west" all over again.

The more players involved in the search game, the more choices we the end users have in finding what we want.

We will ultimately decide which Search Engine is the most relevant.

What a great time to be alive !

The other thing I noticed about how bing handles their content - on the bottom of each article is a link back to the original source (link is followed and host pages are all indexable), so you're also talking about lending value (across all SEs) to large sites like mayoclinic, wikipedia and the other major sources. Even worse news for small sites. It's bothersome, but smaller site owners/operators have always had to lead innovation and adaption and really small sites (or at least small at the time) really pioneered the more creative link building strategies and uses of social media for site promotion, and then make adjustments as bigger players start making this more difficult.

@ Rick Falls: I believe that most search engines will believe that their sites are the most relevant. Kind of like each parent insisting that their child is best ;)

@Mike Moran: very interesting, but we've been seeing this for ages with Google's universal results. It's easier to dominate the first page with multiple service offerings. But this does beg just how Chrome OS may be in the end.

@Robert You are right that we have been seeing this for a while. That's why I linked to my previous article on Universal Search in the first paragraph. I think that what we are seeing from Bing goes even a bit further and I want to keep talking about this because I think it's a problem.

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Search Engine Guide > Mike Moran > Searching for profits more than answers