NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It will be at least nine months -- and probably closer to a year -- before Microsoft takes over Yahoo's search infrastructure, theoretically consolidating 28% of the U.S. search market and mounting the first credible challenge on Google in a decade.
But it's not too early for marketers to wonder if they need to ask: Do we, uh, speak Bing?
One thing is certain: figuring that out is going to amount to a mini stimulus package for digital agencies and search-engine-optimization consultants in the first half of 2010.
Turning up on the first page of organic search results when someone types your product or brand into a keyword box is pretty much the cost of entry for any substantial e-commerce entity or marketer. And for the past decade or so that's meant pretty much one thing: optimize your site for Google, maybe a tweak or two for Yahoo, and everything else, well, didn't matter all that much.
"If you were well-optimized for Google, you were pretty much set, because it means you were well-optimized for everyone else out there," said John Ragals, chief operating officer of digital agency 360i. "The gap wasn't significant enough to warrant the extra investment."
But Bing is quite a bit different from Google and Yahoo, both in the way it ranks pages and the way it presents results on the page. And if search becomes more of a two-player market, it could mean a return to the late '90s, when it was common for marketers to create separate pages optimized for Yahoo, Google, Lycos and AltaVista, and as they do now for the iPhone or other mobile devices.
"You'd effectively have two pages, one for Google and one for Bing," said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineLand.com. If all goes according to plan, Yahoo will make the switch to Bing's organic search results in the third quarter of next year, and then fold in Bing's paid search results soon after.
"We've been getting a lot of questions from clients about the differences," said Craig McDonald, chief marketing officer of digital agency Covario. "This will have an impact in the first half of next year."
Shooting for the top five
The big challenge for marketers will be to figure out how to land among the top five spots on both search engines. That is particularly true for Bing, which often shows only five organic results on its first page -- after which it groups results into categories. Position six on Google may mean users have to scroll down to see the result; on Bing users have to click to the second page.
"If you are not coming up in the top five [search results] for the very generic terms, you are not getting page-one exposure, which means you are losing out on 70% to 80% of searchers," said Collin Cornwell, VP of natural search at iCrossing.
That's a tough challenge for marketers, given that one of the top spots is generally dominated by Wikipedia, leaving really only four slots to make an impression. Or consider the plight of a movie marketer optimizing a film's lead actor: the top three results are dominated by IMDb, Wikipedia and the actor's "official" site -- leaving only two available.
The upside of having results categorized is there's an opportunity for aggressive marketers to have more than one listing on a page for non-branded queries -- not including whatever paid keyword listings the marketer may or may not be buying. For example, a search for "heart rate monitor" might pull up the website of manufacturer Polar USA in the first five organic search results and it might also pull up, under the video category, a Polar demo of how to use a heart rate monitor.
Bing also offers different placements for photos and video, which means opportunities for marketers that produce both.
Still tweaking algorithm
Fundamentally, Google's algorithms give more weight to inbound links, while Bing focuses more on the content or the keywords contained on pages. That said, Microsoft is still tweaking Bing, so any strategy formed today might have to change when the integration with Yahoo takes place. And all of this will get shaken up if and when both engines make real-time search of, say, Twitter or Facebook updates part of their strategies.
How much to invest in Bing is a calculation marketers will make this fall as they plan website development and put together budgets for 2010. While each has its own goals and search strategies, if Bing/Yahoo can retain 25% share, it will be too big for most marketers to ignore. And with apologies to Ask.com and others, it will be the first time in years that marketers will be able to optimize for two players and get virtually 100% of the search market.
"You gauge the amount of effort and investment based on its potential return," said Gregory Markel, CEO of digital-marketing firm Infuse Creative. "If you are killing it on Google and there is room to grow, or if Twitter is delivering traffic to you, you would maximize them first. But if you wake up one morning and Bing has 30% market share, then that's a different conversation."