Shopping in the net

Search engine war hots up as Bing takes on Google for holiday shoppers

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer (left) with Chairman Bill Gates

CEO Steve Ballmer (left) with Founder and Chairman Bill Gates during Microsoft’s annual meeting of shareholders on Wednesday.

Microsoft is trying to skewer Google as a  lousy holiday shopping guide in its latest attempt to divert more traffic to its Bing search engine .

The attack started on Wednesday with a marketing campaign focused on a recent change in the way Google operates the part of its search engine devoted to shopping results. The revisions require merchants to pay Google to have their products listed in the shopping section.

In its new ads, Microsoft Corp contends the new approach betrays Google Inc’s longstanding commitment to provide the most trustworthy results on the Web, even if it means foregoing revenue.

To punctuate its point, Microsoft is warning consumers that they risk getting “scroogled” if they rely on Google’s shopping search service.

The message will be highlighted in TV commercials scheduled to run on NBC and CNN and newspaper ads in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. The blitz also will appear on billboards and online, anchored by a new website, Scroogled.com.

The barbs are likely to inject more antagonism into an already bitter rivalry between two of the world’s best-known and most powerful technology companies.

Google’s search engine is dominant on the Internet. Bing runs a distant second. Microsoft’s Office and Windows software remains an integral part of personal computers, but Google has been reducing the importance of those programs and PCs with the success of Web-based services and its Android operating system for smartphones and tablet computers.

Google doesn’t require websites to pay to be listed in its main database, the index that provides results for requests entered into its all-purpose search box. A query made there for a particular product, such as a computer, will still include results from merchants who haven’t paid for the privilege of being included.

But that’s not the case for someone who clicks on a tab to enter Google’s shopping-only section, which is designed to compare prices and offer other insights such as identifying sites that offer free shipping.

Searches there are confined to paying merchants. That means results from sites, including Web retailing giant Amazon.com Inc, aren’t displayed unless they pay.

Google defends the fee-based approach as a way to encourage merchants to provide more comprehensive and accurate information about what they’re selling.

“I think you just get a well-organised set of product information, ways to buy it, and really have a great experience there,” CEO Larry Page said during a conference call with analysts last month.

In a statement, Google said it’s pleased with the response to the new shopping system, which offers listings from some 100,000 sellers.

Microsoft contends that Google is doing a disservice to its users with the new approach, as many users may not even realise that the results in shopping search are being swayed by money.

“We want consumers to know, in contrast to the route that Google has pursued, we are staying true to the DNA of what a good search engine is really about,” said Mike Nichols, Bing’s chief marketing officer. “We will rank results on what’s relevant to you and not based on how much someone might pay us.”

While all that is true, Bing’s shopping section consists mostly of listings from merchants that haven’t paid for the privilege, said Stefan Weitz, Bing’s director.

That’s so, Weitz said, even though Bing isn’t currently accepting listings from new merchants that want to appear in its shopping results.

The only way a new seller can currently get into Bing’s shopping search engine is to submit their links through Shopping.com’s fee-based service. After the holiday shopping season, Bing’s shopping-only section once again will accept free listings from new merchants, Weitz said.

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