Has Bing Become Better than Google?

Last Updated Jan 14, 2011 6:16 PM EST

It borders on tech blasphemy to suggest that Microsoft (MSFT) Bing has become a better search engine than Google (GOOG). The latter is still champion of the search set, delivering nearly 70 percent of all U.S. search results.

But whether delivering value for advertisers or delivering information that satisfies users, Bing has pulled ahead of Google in a variety of measurements. Bing-powered search -- the combination of Microsoft's own sites and those of its partner, Yahoo (YHOO) -- continues to grow. Perhaps it's time to reevaluate the assumption, held by many, that it's impossible to challenge Google in search.

Not that anything could happen in the immediate future. But the long term indications suggest that Google slowly loses its sway over search users and Microsoft profits as a result. Look at this table from an Experian Hitwise analysis of December 2010 U.S. search traffic:


Now compare that to the figures from the previous year:


Bing's own search traffic has grown, and Microsoft's partnership with Yahoo has turned out to be wily. Although Yahoo is hardly the same powerhouse it once was, the company drives enormous traffic to its sites. Recall also that a former partnership between Yahoo and Google helped launch the latter's fortunes.

You could write this off as an anomaly, assuming that Microsoft's program to reward search users -- otherwise known as buying the love of your customers -- was the reason for the gain. But there are other indications that Bing has begun to pull ahead in some important ways.

For example, Bing-powered searches have caught up to Google in revenue per click rates. EfficientFrontier has a graph demonstrating the shift:


The company attributes this to improved traffic quality for YaBing searches. Improving results mean the chance of wooing advertisers and attacking Google's revenue base. More importantly, Bing seems to be doing a better job of finding information for people. Conrad Saam at SearchEngineLand constructed a test of 20 different difficult searches. Bing was slightly ahead of Google in a number of areas, including potentially confusing questions and date nuances.

In a sense, that is an anecdotal test. What wasn't was Experion's data from last month showing search success rates, or what percentage of searches resulted in a visit to another website. Although some searches will deliver data that requires no other website (for example, typing a city and state with the word "weather" brings up temperature and a mini-forecast under either Bing or Google), most don't. If the answer someone wants is there, you probably get a click. If not, you don't.

Google had a 65.57 percentage of successful searches while both Bing and Yahoo were above 81 percent. In other words, for the point of being able to use the results, people find what they need more often when they use a Bing-driven search.

Perhaps the difference owes to all the time individuals and companies spend in optimizing their sites for Google. For example, content mills like Demand Media make their money by getting pages from their sites at the top of search results. It could be that the poorer quality of their material has started to affect how people react to the search results. No matter what the reason, though, people apparently get practical satisfaction more often with Bing. Unchecked, that could help continue the shifting search market share trend.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.