Fighting Human Nature for a Bigger Share of the Search Pie

Anyone who’s ever tried to diet, start an exercise program, quit smoking, get more sleep, study more, or generally do anything different from their current path has heard the advice that it takes 30 days of consistent application to change behavior. Getting people to make and sustain change has been studied for decades, and well tested models show the stages of transition and the decision-making process that takes place as humans contemplate change.

Essentially, we all go through a predictable pattern of weighing pros and cons before we make any change. With change comes risk and the perceived benefit has to exceed expectations of the current results plus some incremental factor to overcome the unknown.

For Bing or other search engines to overcome our well-ingrained Google habit, it requires them to demonstrate a big benefit to the user — big enough to inspire trial. If, upon trial, users have a positive experience, they may return. If they return enough, it might create a new habit.

Perceived Benefit

Google has been phenomenally successful for several reasons. First, it stripped away a lot of the clutter to present a streamlined and intuitive interface. Second, it catalogs more content, more efficiently then its predecessors. Thirdly, it provides highly relevant search results, making the user experience a positive one. Lastly, it continues to innovate to extend the positive experience in new ways.

Google’s overwhelming dominance, based on the number of searches, is a key indicator of its success against competitors. So what is the perceived benefit for the average searcher to make a switch?

Microsoft has done a number of smart things in its Bing launch. It dangled the carrot of monetary reward for e-commerce searches; it presented a new choice quite different from existing options; it came out strong with a big budget marketing campaign to pique interest; and it has made the Microsoft name secondary to the Bing branding. All to paint a benefits picture, create awareness, and stimulate trial.

There have been scores of reviews of the Bing product and experience that I won’t repeat here. It looks and acts quite differently from Google though, covers some niches very thoroughly while neglecting others, and creates a true point of difference for consumers to weigh while marketers watch closely to see the results of that struggle.

Perceived Risk

Search engines are meant to be efficiency tools to catalog the immense amount of information available online and growing daily. The risk in switching search engines for most people is that of wasting time finding the information they need. Not life threatening to be sure, but time is precious and we all face enough daily frustrations without volunteering for another one.

Unless the perceived benefit of a switch weighs heavily enough, this frustration risk might be enough for the majority of consumers to stay with the known quantity.

Marketers have a whole different list of risks to weigh than consumers. How will their sites be represented in Bing’s organic results? How will sponsored ads be handled? When will it, or will it ever, reach critical mass with consumers? How do I budget resources against this unknown? Marketers will follow consumer lead in supporting (or not) this new reach vehicle.

Consistent Application

There are some significant barriers to overcome in getting users to switch — not the least of which are default browser designations and toolbar downloads. Certainly, many searchers are testing out Bing, but it will be difficult for Bing to become a habit unless and until it’s built into the consumer’s browsing and searching experience via the normal course of daily surfing. The act of choosing Bing over Google for all searches is a monumental commitment that will need to be earned over time for most searchers.

Bing faces a chicken-or-egg problem, as it’s difficult to reach that level of commitment without the access that default choice status brings. Word of mouth and garden variety curiosity will be huge drivers to stimulate trial, but it will take personal experience and the confidence of repeated positive results to move users to a proactive choice with any kind of permanence.

Perhaps the best Microsoft can hope is that its shopper rebate will sufficiently motivate power shoppers online to make the switch and then that group evangelizes to other groups. Microsoft can win by gaining dominance within certain groups hopefully leading to larger and more groups.

Or, it can win by capturing a subcategory of searches by providing better results or greater benefit within that subcategory, but across a broader population. I don’t have Microsoft’s marketing plan, but I’d be spending more of my Bing marketing dollars in that direction.

Sometimes different is an advantage by itself. Google once presented that different experience and ended up owning the category in a short period of time. Google is now the Goliath and Microsoft is in the strange (for them) position of David. We’ve always loved to root for the underdog, if only to continue challenging all players to bring their best game.

But my money is still on human nature and on Google. Google has a history of rapid innovation and response to market conditions. I’m sure their best engineers and marketers have been working to present a solution that rivals and extends the new Bing features and keep consumers in the safety and comfort of their Google existence.

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