Bing no longer a search-engine blip

In Microsoft’s expensive, decadelong battle against Google’s search engine, no detail is too small.

Derrick Connell, a Microsoft vice president in charge of the engineering side of the 4,000-person team that builds the company’s Bing Web search, takes work home with him every weekend.

Connell reviews lists of common queries people type into the search boxes at Google and Bing. His team has spliced the universe of possible search requests into 40 areas, like nearby places or news. Those categories break up into 152 sub-segments.

In some, Bing displays more helpful results, he says. Others favor Google. Each is a battleground.

“We want to be the best,” Connell says. “We believe in our technology.”

How much the rest of the world believes in Bing is up for debate.

By one measure, the search engine now executes a record one out of every five searches made on desktop computers in the U.S., a milestone Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella touted last month in a meeting with Wall Street analysts. But Bing’s standing internationally, and in fast-growing mobile search, is a fraction of that.

Still, executives and outside observers say Bing has gone from the butt of jokes and awkward product placement in movies to a tool comparable to Google’s in terms of its technology. The calls to shelve the business or sell it to a competitor have quieted. Microsoft has integrated Bing’s underlying data-crunching technology into its other software, and plans to tie it closely to its upcoming Windows 10 operating system.

It remains to be seen whether Microsoft can leverage this changing perception into a profit or seriously challenge Google’s status as the Web’s default search engine.

Bing was officially unveiled six years ago June 1, emerging from earlier, largely unsuccessful forays into search.

Microsoft sites accounted for 8.4 percent of U.S. desktop search traffic when Bing debuted in 2009, less than half the share of Yahoo and well behind Google’s 65 percent, according to comScore.

Bing’s share has steadily increased since, to 20.2 percent in April, gaining mostly at the expense of Yahoo, as well as fading search portals and AOL. Google’s share has remained relatively steady. (Put another way, Connell says, “Google was growing until we launched Bing.”)

The bottom line? The technology improved, Sullivan said. “Now, it’s a credible alternative to Google.”

Work remains, however.

Web advertising, a $59 billion business for Google last year, hasn’t been strong enough to make Bing profitable for Microsoft. The company’s online division lost nearly $18 billion from 2006 to 2013. (Beginning in mid-2013, Microsoft lumped Bing and some other businesses into another unit, obscuring its financial performance since.)

Microsoft officials have set a target for Bing to break even on an annual basis in the company’s fiscal year beginning in July, a goal Connell affirmed without hesitation. “2016,” he said. “For sure.”

Meanwhile, Bing still suffers from much more limited exposure globally. Surveys of international search market share put Microsoft and Yahoo each in the low single digits, and Google at more than 80 percent.