Bing has been on a rampage lately, working steadily to prove it can out-google Google. First they released a high-powered suite of image search features, then improved local business listings. The latest Bing rollout, however, doesn’t aim to rocket it ahead of Google: it just plays catch up.
That rollout is the appearance of long form answers in the search results. That means that Bing puts an in-depth answer box in the search results, giving you the information you want without ever having to click through to a site. For example, a search for “how do I get malaria?” might offer a detailed answer scraped from WebMD.
In one sense this is nothing new. It’s exactly what Google has been doing with its “Knowledge Graph” for some time. And Bing has offered short answers to easy questions (like “What is the capital of Nebraska?”) since 2014. But these Google-style long form answers are a first for Bing, and they do change things.
Long Term Effects
For users this doesn’t actually mean much, except that Bing is maybe easier to use and the two search engines look that much more similar. (Though it would be interesting to do a comparison of who offers better answers, similar to the blind test Bing once offered for its search results.)
But for the industry it’s a big deal. Most content publishers object to having their content used like this, or at best passively accept it. Taking content from a website and offering it in the search results means less clicks for that site. And, counter-intuitively, the better the search engine gets at successfully answering questions, the more it hurts their sources.
Together Google and Bing account for nearly 90 percent of all US searches. That means 9 out of 10 users could be handed your content without ever coming to your site.
There are also legal considerations. Europe has hammed Google with lawsuits, laws and regulations. Many of these are specifically about using content snippets. So far Google itself has been the punching bag, but now that Bing is playing copycat it will be interesting to see if Microsoft becomes a target. (Although I wouldn’t bet on it: as the second mouse, Bing can learn from the precedents set in decisions against Google and adjust its services accordingly.)
Right now, the answer box seems to be experimental and Bing could still drop it. But I wouldn’t count on it, at least as long as Google has one. We’re going to need to get used to a world where search engines don’t just bring us traffic, they also snatch some of that traffic away.