iMarket Solutions Blog : Archive for May, 2011

Google and Bing: A Head-to-Head Review of Local Search Results for Service Companies

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

We’ve been reading a lot lately about how Microsoft’s Bing search engine compares to industry giant Google – and whether industry experts think that Bing has the chops to unseat Google from its top spot.

Certainly, there are some things about Bing that are promising.

In many cases, the user experience is better with Bing. Reviewers – ourselves included – generally prefer Bing’s page layout to Google’s. Bing seems to be able to put more information at the searcher’s fingertips than Google does, and it is more visually appealing. Bing’s results pages have more white space and a layout that is easier to follow and more pleasing to the eye.

Bing has also earned praise for its “Explore pane” with links to related searches, followed by the user’s recent search history, and an easy interface for limiting searches to a particular date range. We think many users will appreciate that last feature, because limiting searches by date can dramatically improve their relevance, and specifying date parameters is relatively difficult in Google.

Most of the search engine reviewers focused on more general searches. Of course, for iMarket’s clients, local search is key, so we did our own head-to-head comparison of the way the two engines perform in searches for local service companies.

iMarket’s home base of Burlington, Vermont, is currently experiencing record flooding, so we started with what’s currently top-of-mind for us: “plumber Burlington VT”.  Then, for something completely different, we tried “furnace Vancouver Canada”.

As with our general searches, we preferred Bing’s visual presentation of the information for both searches. In both cases, Bing’s local listings appeared at the top of the page. In one case Google’s local listings were positioned below a paid ad for a national chain (Roto-Rooter), and in the other, they were interspersed confusingly with national listings. We also thought that Bing’s maps, which had numbered blue circles showing the location of each plumbing company, was easier to read than Google’s “raindrop” icons with letters inside them.

But what about the quality of the information? In general, it wasn’t very different. Both Bing and Google’s local listings for Burlington-area plumbers included phone numbers, addresses, and map locations. Google offered seven listings, while Bing had only five, but both provided a link that we could click to get more listings, and those extra listings were fairly comprehensive. For furnaces, Bing offered five local listings, with an obvious link to get more listings, while Google offered only four listings with a less obvious way to get more.

Bing’s much-touted “Explore” pane was no help at all for our Burlington search. The only links it offered were to touristy destinations in and around Burlington. If we’re looking for a plumber, chances are we live here and don’t need to stay in a hotel, and if our basement is flooded, we’re probably not in the mood to check out any upscale local restaurants. For the furnace search, the Explore pane was slightly more helpful, because it contained links to major national furnace brands.

There was one other important difference between the results presented by Google and Bing: Google provided links to reviews when they were available, while on Bing reviews were conspicuously absent on the search results page.

We agree with the online marketing experts who argue that Bing has to be significantly better than Google in order to woo searchers away from Google in large numbers. And so far, at least for local search, Bing and Google (in our view) are about even.

However, Bing isn’t done yet. It’s just signed major deals that will help it compete in two major emerging areas: mobile and social search. We’ll talk about those deals next week and how service companies should react to them.

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What’s the Difference Between Bing and Google? And How Does iMarket Optimize HVAC and Plumbing Websites for Strong Performance in Both Search Engines?

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

As we’ve discussed in previous blog posts, it seems pretty certain that Bing is “borrowing” from Google by using the Bing toolbar to record the way searchers interact with Google’s search results.

But that doesn’t mean that Bing and Google return identical results – far from it.

So what are the differences between Bing and Google? How do they arrive at their results? And how do those differences impact HVAC and plumbing companies that use the web to generate leads?

The answer is that we don’t really know exactly how the search engines compute their results, because they keep their secret formulas under lock and key. But we can at least make some educated guesses.

In broad strokes, here are three of the most important differences we’ve found between Bing and Google:

  • For Bing, content is king. For Google, context is. Both Bing and Google evaluate your website on a range of factors, including the actual words that appear on your site, the keywords that are incorporated into your site’s programming, and the way your website links with others. But they use this information differently to come up with their results. Bing seems to be more concerned with “on page factors” than Google is – that is, with the parts of a website that the user actually reads. Google, on the other hand, puts more emphasis on “Page Rank”, which is a complicated algorithm that essentially determines how popular your website is compared to other, similar websites.
  • Google wants to know how many people link to you; Bing wants to know why they link to you. “Backlinks”, or “incoming links”, are links from other websites to yours. Links are extremely important for calculating search results, because they offer insight into what other people think of your website. (The thinking is that if people link to your site, you must be offering something worthwhile.) Both search engines look at two factors when they evaluate incoming links: 1) how many links there are from other sites to yours; and 2) what those links say (i.e. if they contain relevant keywords). The difference is that Google seems to prioritize the quantity of links, while Bing seems to focus more on the quality of links.
  • Google likes new content; Bing likes established content. Bing pays more attention to the “authority” of a website – that is, it gives precedence to websites that have been around for a while or belong to authoritative organizations. Google, on the other hand, seems to value fresh content and is much more likely to list recent blog posts than Bing is.

For more detailed technical information on the differences between Bing and Google, check out

What do the differences between the search engines mean for HVAC and plumbing companies that want to make sure that their websites get to the top of the search results and stay there?

Well, first of all, it’s important to realize that optimizing for both search engines is not a zero-sum game – that is, if you do well in one, you won’t do worse in the other (particularly since Bing seems to be borrowing Google’s results).

In fact, if your website is programmed and managed according to the best practices that we use here at iMarket, you’ll be well-positioned for strong performance in both search engines.

To make sure that our clients’ sites perform well in both Bing and Google, we start out with the fundamental element of all effective search engine optimization: great content. Of course, our SEO service includes lots of high-tech extras along the way, but content is at the heart of everything we do.

Here’s why:

  • Well-written content that truly describes your company and the products and services you offer will naturally contain good keywords. Both search engines (especially Bing) love strong on-page content with relevant keywords.
  • Well-written, useful content encourages other people to link to you. The more people link to you, the happier Google will be.
  • Adding fresh content regularly keepings those links coming, and keeps Google interested.
  • If you keep maintaining your website and adding content regularly, over time it will become an established, authoritative site, which will earn it the respect of Bing’s more conservative algorithm.

Next week, we’ll talk about how we think newcomer Bing might fare in the long term against industry giant Google.

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Stop the Presses (Literally)! San Francisco Bans the Yellow Pages

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Well, it’s not quite a ban, but it’s close. A few days ago, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to restrict delivery of the Yellow Pages to residents and businesses who specifically request a copy.

The vote is a preliminary one – legislation in San Francisco is not final until it passes a second vote – but the 10-1 margin of the May 11th vote is a strong indication that the measure will shortly become law in the environmentally-conscious city.

The legislation sets up a three-year pilot project to limit distribution of the Yellow Pages to those who request a copy by phone, Internet, or by leaving a sticky note on their door. The law mandates special outreach to low-income, non-English-speaking, and elderly people who may not know how to request a copy online.

Supporters of the restriction on Yellow Pages deliveries say that it will be a good thing for their city. They argue that in the age of computer and mobile devices, most people (some say as many as 70%) no longer want or use paper telephone directories. Building managers are annoyed by the unsightly piles of unused copies left in lobbies and on doorsteps. Environmentalists point to the more than seven million pounds of waste generated by the nearly 1.6 million copies of the Yellow Pages delivered each year. (If the books were stacked up, they would be 8 ½ times as high as Mount Everest.) Recycling helps, of course, but the thick volumes frequently clog up recycling equipment, requiring expensive repairs.

Opponents of the measure highlight possible negative impacts on small, local businesses that rely on the Yellow Pages as their primary advertising medium. In particular, businesses without websites would be hit hard by the loss of advertising opportunities. And, not surprisingly, the Local Search Association (until recently known as the “Yellow Pages Association”) has been very vocal in its opposition to the possible law. Instead of the opt-in system mandated in the new law, the Local Search Association supports an opt-out system, which is already in place on the Yellow Pages website. If the legislation passes the second vote, it’s likely that the Local Search Association will challenge it in court. (In Seattle last year, a similar law was struck down on free speech grounds.)

San Francisco may be the first city to succeed in restricting Yellow Pages delivery, but we don’t think it will be the last. What impact will limited Yellow Pages delivery have on your business?

  • First, it will make it absolutely crucial for your business to have a website. If you don’t have a website already, you need to get one ASAP to make sure that you’re ready for any changes to your city’s Yellow Pages policy.
  • Second, you’ll need to make sure that your website can compete in online local search. This makes sense no matter what happens to the Yellow Pages in your city. As we noted in our last blog post on the Yellow Pages (“The Yellow Pages – Your Grandmother’s Inbound Marketing?”, April 6, 2011), the vast majority of consumers – perhaps as many as 97% – use the web to evaluate potential products and services before buying them.
  • Third, it might make advertising in the Yellow Pages a good idea again. No, you read that right. It sounds like a paradox, but limiting the circulation of the Yellow Pages might make it a much more viable advertising medium for service companies. Right now, we believe that advertising in the Yellow Pages is grossly overpriced for the number of leads it generates. But if the Yellow Pages limits its delivery to only those who really use it, advertising rates will almost certainly drop to reflect its smaller circulation, while the number of leads you get will probably stay about the same. This will make for a much better ROI on your Yellow Pages advertising. (Of course, the secret to being sure that you get the ROI you’re looking for on all your advertising is to use a specific, designated, trackable phone number for each kind of advertising you do, so that you can assess the number and quality of leads generated by each medium.)

The Yellow Pages industry is buzzing like a hornet about the possible restriction on its distribution, but we hope it settles down and starts to see the advantages of the change. The web is here to stay, and there’s no doubt that it’s supplanting paper phone books for many people. All indications are that the Yellow Pages industry, as it currently exists, is doomed to financial ruin. However, if the Yellow Pages scales down its business model to focus on serving the small percentage of consumers who still use paper directories, it will set itself up as a valuable complement to online search. If this happens, we’ll go back to being enthusiastic supporters of the Yellow Pages as part of a comprehensive marketing program for service businesses.

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Is Bing Stealing Google’s Search Results? And Will It Be Good for You?

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Last week, we talked about allegations made by Google that Bing is stealing its search results. This doesn’t mean that Bing’s results are identical to Google’s – in fact, the overlap between first-place results in a test group was only about 9 %. However, something does seem to be going on, and Microsoft isn’t quite denying the charges. Here’s the statement that Microsoft issued after Google made its accusations:

We use over 1,000 different signals and features in our ranking algorithm. A small piece of that is clickstream data we get from some of our customers, who opt-in to sharing anonymous data as they navigate the web in order to help us improve the experience for all users.

Translated into plain English, here’s what’s probably happening.

As we outlined last week, Google created “honeypot” search terms to try to catch Bing in the act of copying search results. In this context, “honeypot” terms are nonsense words that didn’t actually appear in any websites (i.e. so overlap in results couldn’t be explained by good optimization practices) and that had never been searched for before. Next, Google manually assigned search results to those made-up search words. Then, Google’s programmers went to their home computers and started searching for those made-up terms and clicking on the results that appeared.

That’s the key to this little “sting” operation: when Google’s team searched for the honeypot terms at home, they made sure to use Internet Explorer, Microsoft’s Internet browser, and to make sure that the Bing toolbar was enabled.

The reason they did so is because they suspected that Microsoft was doing what it later confirmed in the statement quoted above: it was monitoring and recording “clickstream data” (i.e. a record of what users click on as they navigate around the web). That data almost certainly came from people who agreed to allow Microsoft to monitor what they do online. (If you said yes to “Turn on Suggested Sites” when you set up Internet Explorer on your computer, you too agreed to this.) If Microsoft users used Google search and clicked on Google results, that information was sent to Microsoft, which may have incorporated it into the Bing algorithm.

In some ways, this practice isn’t so far off from “retweeting”, in which content from one source is reproduced in another place by a user who thinks it’s good stuff. In the world of the web, this is generally considered to be a compliment – as long as the source is attributed. While not acknowledging Google’s contribution is definitely poor sportsmanship, it’s probably not illegal, since (based on the small percentage of overlap) Google’s input was probably only a small part of Bing’s algorithm, and therefore Bing’s use of Google results probably doesn’t quite violate intellectual property laws.

That being said, it’s pretty hypocritical that Bing’s “Decision Engine” advertising campaign tries to suggest that Bing is superior to the search engine from which it’s “borrowing” data.

However, if we worried about the ethics of every giant corporation does, none of us would have time for anything else. We at iMarket think we’ll best serve our clients by focusing on the practical:  how will Bing’s likely use of Google in its search algorithm impact businesses that use the web to generate leads?

The answer is, it will probably benefit those businesses. The first benefit is that Bing seems to be becoming a better search engine. We’ve noticed some improvements recently, particularly in how fast Bing adds new websites to its search results. That’s been good news for our clients.

The second way businesses might benefit is that their good performance in Google may be rewarded with good performance in Bing as well. If you look at it as a numbers game, here’s the way it could work: Internet Explorer is used by approximately one-quarter of searchers, and Google is used by approximately two-thirds of searchers. For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume that half of the people who set up Internet Explorer on their computers opt in to Microsoft’s “Suggested Sites” click-tracking program and the Bing toolbar. Now, let’s do some down-and-dirty math: If you take half of two-thirds of one-quarter, you get about eight percent of all web searchers sending information about their Google results to Microsoft via Internet Explorer’s toolbar. (Interestingly, that’s about the percentage of overlap between Bing’s and Google’s results.)

So, in our view, the most important thing we can do in light of all this is to make sure that Internet Explorer users send some tasty “Google juice” over to Bing for our clients. We’ll do that by continuing to do what we’ve already been doing successfully: working hard to get strong placement for our clients in Google.

Of course, we’ve never ignored Bing in our optimization work. Next week we’ll talk about how Bing and Google differ and how we respond to those differences.

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