Earth to Microsoft: Don’t sell Bing.

In the New York Times, Robert Cryan and Martin Hutchison of Reuters BreakingViews suggest that Microslft sell its Bing search engine, either outright or in exchange for stock in a company that can do more with it than rank a distant #2 to Google while piling up billions per year in losses, which is what Bing is doing for Microsoft right now.

Bing is a good search engine, but it still seems derivative. Even where it leads, it seems to follow.

Take “bird’s eye views” in map searches. That is, views from a low-flying plane, rather than a from a satellite in space. Bing had it long before Google came up with the same thing, and does a better job of integrating it. Case in point: the Rialto Mercado district of Venice, which I covered (using a Google Maps image) a couple weeks ago, when I was there:

Bancogiro, Rialto Mercado, Venice

Here’s the Bing bird’s eye image of the same place:

Yet who (besides me and too few others) knows that Bing’s bird’s eye views are better? (With real street names, rather than a scattering of commercial locations?) And why hasn’t Microsoft challenged Google on this and other fronts more aggressively? I think the reason is that all Microsoft’s marketing efforts are all going into revenue production with their customers, which are advertisers, rather than users.

So here’s a suggestion for Microsoft: Don’t sell Bing. Sell Bing-based services directly to users — and fight Google where they’re weak: with personal attention and support.

Do that by making customers of users. Sell premium search (and other) services, and provide hand-holding support. Hell, I’ll pay for organic searches (that is, ones where results aren’t buried under Himilayas of SEO). Ad-driven pollution of search results is Google’s biggest problem right now, whether it knows that or not (and I’m sure it does). And, for all its virtues (there are many, most of which are non-trivial), Google remains a server-based company. It isn’t personal, and probably can’t be.

For all its faults (and there are many, also non-trivial), Microsoft has always been a personal computing company. This is a huge advantage. The future, like the past, is personal. Not just “social.” (Which, in the business sense, has come to mean advertising-supported.)

People will pay for value. They always have, and they always will. As Don Marti once said, “Information doesn’t want to be free. It wants to be $6.95.” There is a market here. People saying “Everybody expects everything to be free now” only masks the opportunity. (And, while I’m no fan of iTunes, Apple proved with it that people were willing to pay more than nothing for music, if it was easy.)

Yes, keep the free search engine up, and keep providing plenty of free services. But also remember that the free that matters most to people is freedom. That’s the ultimate secret ingredient, if you really want to get personal. “Social” from the start on the Web has never been about personal freedom. It’s been full of traps: walled gardens, coerced loyalty, isolation from personal data, stalking by robot advertising slave files… The list is a long one. So sell freedom too. Help move the World Live Web evolve from the calf-cow model to the human-human one. Of course you’ll need to make your services unique. But you can also help customers in ways nobody else (at your scale, anyway) is today: by helping them collect data for themselves, so they can decide on their own what to do with it. Make personal data portable as well as personal. Join the personal data ecosystem. Be a VRM as well as a CRM company.

Sure, selling ad-free services might undermine some of Bing’s current ad-based business model, but so what? You’re already losing $billions — and it will undermine Google’s model too. (What could be more competitive? And it’s going to happen anyway.) Go back to your roots. Get personal again. As Dave Winer often says, zig where the other guys zag. So stop being derivative. Take the lead. It’s there for the taking. Nothing could be bigger. Microsoft’s biggest successes already prove that. You can prove it again.

14 comments

  1. Kyle’s avatar

    Problem with Bing is that their regional search sucks. Unlike google there are information that I can found on their result pages that I can’t find in Bing. So even though I use WP7 I still use Google instead of Bing

  2. Greg’s avatar

    Great comments on search!! Everyone is trying to be social in search these days, but in the end what’s valuable to me is not necessarily the same thing that my friend’s liked on Facebook or +1ed. You could be on to something with the ads free model. I’d use it for sure…

  3. Derin’s avatar

    Google is the best. You can do all sorts of searches on it and find literally ‘anything’ that you are looking for. Also, it provides a lot of help to small businesses Worldwide. Bing is second best, but I really do wish Windows the best.

  4. @boris_tweets’s avatar

    Hey, that’s a great article! Let me rephrase: I hardly ever read articles that show such an understanding of the Internet, where it is, and where it should go. Count on me to Facebook/G+ the heck out of this! ;-)

  5. Joe’s avatar

    Why pay for Bing search when Google search will be good enough for the vast majority of one’s needs?

  6. Andrew’s avatar

    What you’re asking for is far more likely if Microsoft spins off or sells Bing.

    Bing is hobbled by Windows and Office. It’s probably the 5th priority business for Microsoft. An independent Bing could be great. But with Microsoft its simply going to continue as a second-rate money losing business tht’s unwilling to take risks.

    (Let’s just hope they didn’t force Bing to use windows servers, like they did with Hotmail…)

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Kyle, you’re right that Bing is inferior in some ways. Regional search may be one. Another is image search. in some ways I like the Bing UI more than Google’s, but what matters more is that the results on Google are better, on the whole. (IMHO)

    Andrew, Netcraft says Bing is running on Akamai Linux servers: I guess, as long as they’re jobbing the back end out to Akamai, that will remain the case. But costs are obviously an issue. They’re renting the infrastructure rather than owning it; and it’s clear that they don’t want to repeat the Hotmail mistake.

    But maybe you’re right that another company could do a better job. The suggestion floated elsewhere that Apple might want to buy it is an interesting one. Apple has $75 billion in cash. Doesn’t seem like something Apple would want to do, though. Meanwhile I can’t think of another buyer who would want to go straight up against Google’s core strength, even if some say there are weaknesses there.

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