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Can Microsoft outsmart Google in search?

In March, Bing claimed one in five of US-based desktop searches, according to comScore. The numbers vary depending on the source; StatCounter reports only 12 percent for Bing’s desktop market share. What’s consistent, however, is the trend. Bing is becoming more relevant.

What’s more, the Bing algorithm powers Yahoo!, which has significantly increased its desktop market share. Together, they rack up over one in three US desktop searches by comScore’s measurement. That’s a significant chunk of search. Is Google starting to falter?

Related: Bing now powers 1 in 5 desktop searches in the US

Over the past year, Bing’s US deskop search share grew by over 10 percent

You’d expect the growth to originate from a change in browser market share. Purchases of desktop devices are stagnating in favor of tablets and other mobile devices. You could suspect that less tech savvy and enterprise users, who stick with a desktop computer and Internet Explorer as their default browser, are causing a shift towards Bing. The data, however, reveals that Google Chrome’s market share has been increasing, while the overall trend for Bing-powered Internet Explorer is down.

StatCounter Global Search Engine Stats

Interestingly, Internet Explorer briefly surpassed Chrome in July and December 2014, which was around the time of Back to School and Christmas shopping seasons. My guess is that users switching from one machine to another still use Internet Explorer to download a new default browser.

If not from a change in browser market share, where does Bing’s growth originate? Desktop search statistics incorporate any search operation initiated from a desktop environment, including not only browser and website based searches, but also searches from within a desktop application or from the desktop itself. If you look at how the market share of operating systems has developed over the past year, you’ll spot a likely candidate. Windows 8.1 has risen from around six percent market share in March 2014 to 17 percent in March 2015.

StatCounter-os-US-monthly-201403-201504

Windows 8.1 integrates Bing Smart Search in the search charm, offering search results directly on the desktop. Moreover, Microsoft released a cheaper Windows edition called Windows 8.1 with Bing, which prevents the PC manufacturer, but not the end user, from changing the default Internet Explorer search engine. In other words, Bing is front and center in Windows 8.1.

Related: Microsoft reveals Windows 8.1 with Bing, may mean cheaper devices for you

Windows 8.1’s desktop web search isn’t that popular

Windows 8.1, however, doesn’t appear to be the sole driver of Bing’s growth. Internationally, Windows 8.1 adoption equals U.S. numbers, yet Google continues to dominate the global market with a share of around 88 percent, despite being banned in China. Meanwhile, the global market share of the Bing search algorithm, including Yahoo! search, has only grown from around 7.6 to 8.3 percent. More importantly, Bing’s accelerated growth started in early 2013, prior to the release of Windows 8.1.

One last suspect is Bing Rewards. Microsoft’s loyalty program awards points for using the Bing search engine, trying new Bing features, and testing selected Microsoft products and services. Bing Rewards tracking is available in the U.S.only, which would match with the pronounced growth in the U.S. Bing Rewards was introduced in 2010 and didn’t contribute much to Bing’s market share at first, but continued promotions may have gained traction eventually.

Related: Microsoft offers 100GB of free OneDrive space, if you’re willing to Bing

bingpredictions

Bing’s increasing popularity in the U.S. could also be due to successful marketing. Since 2013, Bing Predicts has accurately predicted the majority of Oscar winners. Being a search engine, Bing has first hand information on fashion, food, technology, and travel trends, but it also tries its hand at predicting sports results. Last year, Cortana correctly predicted the World Cup finals. Since October last year, Bing has been predicting elections.

Related: Move over Nate Silver, Bing is now firmly in the election prediction business

Bing is hidden under the hood of other search tools

As mentioned above, Bing’s search algorithm powers Yahoo! search, which is the default search engine in Firefox. Likewise, Amazon’s Silk browser, found on the Kindle Fire, is using Bing as its default search engine. In 2013, Apple made Bing the default search engine for its digital assistant Siri. A year later, Apple also integrated Bing into its Spotlight desktop search. Meanwhile, Google remains the default search engine for Safari and powers searches in Chrome, two of the world’s most popular browsers.

Bing’s influence is slowly expanding, but according to Microsoft’s director of search Stefan Weitz, Bing is not expecting to compete with Google in the “pure search” market. Microsoft is focusing on machine learning, natural language search, and weaving search technology into the things people already do.

Cortana could make Bing even better

Seitz is clearly pointing to Cortana. Microsoft’s Bing-powered digital assistant combines the popular Halo video game character Cortana with advanced search features. Microsoft is somewhat late to the game, but it may be ahead when it comes to consequently implementing the new technology. After making its debut on Windows Phone 8.1, Cortana is becoming a key feature of Windows 10.

windows-phone-8-1-cortana

In Windows 10, search moves to a prominent location in the Windows Taskbar. You can type in keywords or command your digital assistant with your voice, similar to Siri and Google Now. With Cortana, Microsoft is pushing a paradigm shift in how we search; away from the browser and right onto the platform. Who is going to open Google if they can simply say “Hey Cortana?” To expand its reach, Cortana will eventually be available on iOS and Android.

In an interview with Time, Bing’s general manager Ryan Gavin was quoted saying “We fundamentally believe that as search evolves, it will move well beyond the point where I launch a browser and type a query into a search box.” If Microsoft makes moving beyond the search box easier, it could enjoy even greater adoption of Bing in the future.

Related: Here’s how to make the most of Cortana, the Windows 10 digital assistant

Google risks its market share in Europe

While Bing is fixing its reputation, winning sympathies, and building a following, Google is getting into hot water. Following its refusal to comply with the “right to be forgotten,” considered a human right by the European court, Google has become the subject of a four-year-long antitrust investigation by the European Commission. Recently, Google was accused of abusing its monopoly and breaching antitrust rules in regards to presenting its own services.

Related: The European Commission sued Google today over anti-competitive practices

Besides bad press, the consequence could be hefty fines and further restrictions placed on the search engine. Seeing that its algorithm currently processes around 91 percent of desktop searches in Europe, Google has a lot to lose.

EU Browser BallotIn 2010, Microsoft was facing similar accusations. Distributing Windows with Internet Explorer pre-installed was seen as an abuse of market dominance. Microsoft was forced to offer Windows users a choice of browsers. The decision led to a rapid decline in Internet Explorer’s European market share. Earlier this year, the browser choice ballot expired and its reactivation has not been considered.

With Microsoft’s new browser, Edge, pre-installed on Windows 10, and Cortana winning sympathies, Bing could rapidly gain popularity, not only in the United States, but also in Europe and the rest of the world. Not least because 1.5 billion current Windows users globally will be invited to upgrade to Windows 10 this summer. For free. Hey, Cortana — are you plotting global domination?