Despite all the bling that has been spent on Bing, few people are giving Microsoft's new search engine much chance of stealing away even a fraction of Google's dominant market share. That makes sense when you consider the strength of Google's brand – the term 'Google' has become the verb for undertaking an online search. The brand, we are reliably told, is now the world's most valuable, with an equity of more than $100bn.
Google enjoys a near 90% share of the UK and 72% share of the US search markets thanks to a loyal user base which returns to it time and again for their online information. Despite this dominance, you can see why Microsoft thinks it has a chance with Bing. For all its current loyalty and brand equity, Google does have an Achilles heel and it could prove relatively easy to erode that loyalty and grab share. Let me explain.
One of the most over-used phrases in the marketing lexicon is 'brand loyalty'. There are many reasons for a return purchase, and only a few of them relate to a consumer's relationship with the brand.
Take all the pompous marketers from banks and mobile-phone networks that seem to dominate the rosters of most marketing conferences. Almost all of them mistake a consumer who is locked into their brand through significant switching costs with one who is enraptured by the brand and therefore unlikely to stray.
Switching costs are the painful, time-consuming steps required to change brands when you are unhappy with the service you are receiving. These costs usually account for a far higher proportion of repeat purchases than the higher-level, stronger brand loyalty for which they are often mistaken. It is like asking your parents on their silver wedding anniversary for the secret of their long and happy marriage and being told that a divorce would have been too messy. It is loyalty, of a sort; but not the best or strongest kind.
Which brings me back to Google.
The reason we visit the site is because we believe it to be the fastest and finest search engine on the planet. That's a wonderful position of perceived superiority, but hardly the high-level symbolic brand associations that typify most strong brands. While it might be possible to make a better cola than Coke, no one is worried about this in Atlanta, because it would be impossible to be more Coca-Cola than Coca-Cola. The brand has an unassailable symbolic advantage. Not so with Google – it is a brand built on the perception of superior product performance. If Microsoft could manage to shake this perception, would you be tempted to switch sites? Maybe just to check?
And what would stop you? Google has no switching costs. It might be a $100bn franchise, but the brand is only ever six keystrokes away from losing its consumers, should a better search engine arrive on the horizon.
So, the $100bn question is whether Bing is actually better than Google. If only there was a blind test that could assess the engines side-by-side in an objective manner. Handily, a site has just been launched at blindsearch.fejus.com that enables us to do just that. It compares search results from Google, Bing and Yahoo! and will only reveal which is which after you vote for the most effective search results. Delightfully, the results I saw suggested that it's the third option – Yahoo! – that offers the best results.
Perhaps Bing is not the answer. But it has started the process of questioning Google's apparent superiority. Now we will get to find out just how strong the Google brand really is.
30 Seconds On…BlindSearch
* Blind-Search was created by Microsoft employee Michael Kordahi. He says the initiative has nothing to do with the company, but is simply him 'having fun in his spare time'.
* According to Tim Anderson's ITWriting blog, the results of the 8518 votes for which search engine has provided the most effective results stood at: Google 45%; Bing 33%; and Yahoo! 22%.
* Early in the experiment, however, BlindSearch was forced to remove the tallies for each search engine as a result of people 'gaming the system'.
* BlindSearch's creator admits it has 'many flaws' at this early stage. Kordahi says the main issue is the lack of localisation, so all searches are currently going through the US as US searches. The search engines' additional benefits – image thumbnails, refine queries and suggest-ions – are missing from the site, which may skew results.
* Kordahi's has another side-line – thetweetshirt.com, which sells Twitter T-shirts.
Let's meet. Join Branding Strategy Insider on Twitter and Facebook