Prying Up Rocks, Shining Flashlights

“I can’t believe you like money too! We should hang out.” – Frito, Idiocracy

With Microsoft’s launch of Bing, we finally have someone in the marketplace who is able to match Google dollar for dollar, both on the tech side and on the business side. This is having plenty of ripple effects [cough]. Anyway, one interesting facet of this story is that it is forcing the tech press to pay more attention to how search market share works. Heck, with Microsoft moving so aggressively to win back deals from Google, some of these stories are even turning out to be kind of sexy!

The tech press definitely deserves some sympathy here, because deal distribution stories are a fundamentally a hard story to report.

  • They’re about boring sales guys, not exciting new technology. It’s not a very heroic narrative.
  • The effects of these deals are shifted in time. Deals made two, three, four years ago are just having their major effects felt now.
  • The effects of these deals are subtle and difficult for outsiders to track. The press only has access to aggregate data from third parties. Only companies with search engines have access to the real, raw, data, and we don’t share it.
  • Understanding the real importance of distribution deals requires the reader (and reporter!) to make a huge cognitive leap: namely, that almost everyone else in the world is pretty vague on the concept of a browser, or a website, or a search engine. For most internet users, these concepts are all mushed together. Which is why unlike you, 98% of the population can’t or won’t change their search engine preferences.

I think any techie can relate to that last issue. We’ve all had our own proverbial “Aunt Ida”, a happy, intelligent, fully functional member of society who nevertheless has major trouble getting online, reading her email, etc. So we sort of get that first bit at least. Here’s the thing that we all have a hard time understanding at a deep, fundamental level, because we live in the tech echo chamber: everybody is Aunt Ida. We are a rounding error.

So with that in mind, it’s good to see more light being shined on this corner of the industry, and it’s very interesting to watch the press starting to wrap their heads around this stuff. Still, this process is happening in fits and starts, and in some instances I think we have… a ways to go. Here, for example, is CNBC on the Bing/Apple discussions:

“Got an intriguing email from a knowledgeable source very familiar with search dynamics involving Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo for that matter.

Third point: Every time you do a Google search from Apple’s iPhone Safari and a user clicks an ad, Apple gets a payment. Microsoft, this source tells me, is willing to throw much more money to Apple to ensure that they displace Google as the default engine…”

CNBC needed secret inside sources to let them in on this? Incredible. But even more jaw-dropping was the report from Search Engine Land. When reading the following passage, keep in mind that Search Engine Land is widely considered to be the premier source for news about the search industry:

“… Becoming the default search provider on 70 million (roughly) iPhone OS devices would be an enormous boost for Bing. (One question: is Microsoft offering Apple money?)”

Headdesk. Oh, well. Until those guys catch up, there’s always Kara Swisher