A Case Study in Perseverance: Microsoft’s Bet on Bing is Paying Off

Update, July 2017:

Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, has recently begun experimenting with content display and promotion. In late April 2017, Microsoft announced a targeting feature called Custom Audiences on Bing Ads. The feature gives brands the ability to integrate first-party data with Bing Ads’ targeting technology. That means that marketers can leverage customer data to better determine targeted advertising spend and focus.

In early June 2017, Bing launched Bing Business Bots (also known as BizBots), digital assistants whose goal is to help online businesses connect with local audiences.

Late June 2017, Bing introduced the ability for a user to personalize the image and video feeds they see when visiting the Bing homepage. This is a double whammy: Bing can become better at suggesting relevant images and videos that users will be more inclined to save, and users will potentially be wont to more frequently visit the Bing homepage to check in on the constantly rotating suggestion feed.

Then, finally, in early July 2017, Bing added the “Popular Content” feature to its search results page. Similar to the carousel of ads that users can now find on social media channels like Facebook and Instagram, Bing now populates a carousel of popular content sections relevant to the user’s search query.

Bing is absolutely taking the horns of machine learning to up its appeal to users of the search engine, in addition to becoming an invaluable resource for online businesses.

Microsoft’s Bing search engine is an interesting animal. Launched nearly 12 years after Google.com was already in existence, Bing had a rough start. It attempted to make its presence known and appreciated in the shadow of Google’s domination in the search engine landscape. After all, the word “Google” has become synonymous with the idea of “search.” For years, Bing has caused Microsoft to leak money, the company’s innovative ideas and unwavering determination seeming foolish and unfounded. Then, at the tail end of October 2015, Microsoft reassured the world that Bing was healthy, thriving and poised for greatness.

Turns out, that statement wasn’t hyperbole.

Bing has always been a reactionary tool, learning from the successes and failures of its competitors, before taking cautious steps forward to garner the No. 2 spot for preferred search engine. Let’s rewind back to 2009: Microsoft introduced to the world Bing, a decision engine specifically “developed as a tool to help people more easily navigate through the information overload that has come to characterize many of today’s search experiences.”

Bing took a different approach to the capability of a search engine: It’s an empowering tool for people who don’t know exactly what they’re searching for. While Google search works wonders at conjuring up thousands of results when the search query is granular, Bing works best as a suggestion aide.

Bing’s Evolution

Bing has slowly adjusted and has pivoted from being the butt of the internet’s jokes to showcasing its strengths. In 2010 Bing rolled out a new feature update: the “Answer Bar,” which “gently guide[s] users towards information they might need…help[ing] you tab through different points of interest related to your search.” In 2012, Microsoft re-fashioned Bing’s motto, de-emphasizing its decision engine label, to “Bing is for doing.”

In 2013, Apple shockingly “ditched” Google and “began relying exclusively on Bing to power searches through Siri.” At the same time, “Microsoft integrated Bing into a wide range of its software and hardware services, including Microsoft Office, Xbox and Cortana,” as well as partnered up with AOL and Uber.

Then at the end of Q4 2015, Microsoft announced that Bing had become profitable. Like a triumphant cherry-on-top to the good news of getting out of the red, in 2016, Microsoft dubbed Bing an “intelligence fabric.” That means that not only is Bing “woven” into Windows 10, Xbox, and the digital assistant Cortana, but also into products “beyond the Microsoft ecosystem” like Amazon’s Alexa and Fire devices. Microsoft also revealed future integrations with LinkedIn and its plans for deploying its “Associate Account Manager in a Box” project, which essentially gives every Bing advertiser a virtual, AI-powered bot that will manage Bing Ads accounts. Additionally, Microsoft has been experimenting with a testing and optimization product for Bing Ads called Decision Service.

Decision Engine and Bing Ads

Similarly to Bing search being rooted in Microsoft’s Decision Engine, Bing Ads will be rooted in the machine learning application programming interface (API) Decision Service. But what is Decision Service? According to Microsoft, “the Decision Service learns from experience to make content-aware choices among a small number of actions to optimize a user-defined outcome measure.”

Decision Service can potentially be used not only for content marketing and targeted advertisements, but also product recommendations and cross-sells. According to Media Post, an online resource for the advertising and media industries, the platform will “analyze site visitor’s behaviors to optimize content, pricing and ad serving in real-time. It learns from the actions that visitors take on the website to personalize recommendations and news … [The platform] optimizes based on the end metric marketers preset in the system, such as increasing click-through rates or purchases, rather than accuracy or precision recall. The research and data behind the modeling creates an unbiased evaluation, solving many of the problems behind traditional machine learning in real-time scenarios.”

Basically, machine learning will process user clicks and views in real-time, making possible the delivery of a personalized and optimized ad experience to best appeal to the website visitor. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is: It takes cues from ONE by AOL, AOL’s revolutionary programmatic TV advertising tool, and its digital counterpart of real-time bidding.

Currently, Decision Service is enjoying a successful deployment on Microsoft’s Azure.

Microsoft’s Decision Service and its success with Bing make search advertising and digital advertising more accessible to businesses of all sizes. Now, even mom and pop shops can have a virtual account manager in a box, which means they won’t need to spend a huge amount of money discovering their target audiences or the potential reach of online campaigns. They also won’t need to rely on big agencies and data partners to be smart about their advertising opportunities.

Of course, the possibility for growth in the digital space and accumulation of loyal customers isn’t limited to small e-commerce or locally owned shops with a digital presence. The technology that Microsoft Research has been steadily working on and honing will prove invaluable in a time when competition is cutthroat and marketers work to prove to prospective customers that their business is distinct and unique.