What’s Behind the Bing Blackout?


Microsoft’s Bing search engine experienced a brief outage Thursday evening that forced users to do their Internet searching via its rivals — at least for a half hour or so.

Luckily for Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), the outage was brief.

“Bing.com was down between about 6:30 and 7:00 PM Pacific Time on Dec. 3, 2009. During this time, users were either unable to get to the site, or their queries were returning [an] incomplete results page,” Satya Nadella, senior vice president of Microsoft’s Online Services Division, said in a post on the Bing Community blog late last night.

The failure was the result of problems that arose during a system “configuration change during some internal testing that had unfortunate and unintended consequences,” according to Nadella’s post.

Rolling back the change fixed the problem, but it took that half an hour to accomplish it.

In itself, the outage, especially as brief as it was, is not a cause for concern and is not likely to permanently drive Bing fans to competitors’ search engines. However, one analyst said that the demand to constantly update Bing in order to better compete could become a problem if it happens more than once or twice.

“For instance, just this last week, they [Microsoft] added ground-level imaging [to Bing],” Rob Helm, research director at Directions on Microsoft, told InternetNews.com. “It’s been changing quickly.”

In fact, Helm said, that may be part of the problem.

“This outage won’t have an impact [on users] but Microsoft has to prove that this won’t be a recurring thing,” Helm added.

Nadella did not disclose precisely the nature of the tweak that beached Bing. Microsoft spokespeople declined to comment beyond the initial blog post.

However, as Helm pointed out, Microsoft has been making changes at a breakneck pace in recent weeks. The software giant held an event in San Francisco Tuesday to show off several new and pending additions to Bing, including mapping features, currently in beta, that zoomed from a pedestrian-level view — dubbed Streetside — to a bird’s-eye view.

The company also recently announced it is adding complex mathematical formulas from search startup WolframAlpha to Bing’s search capabilities.

Microsoft launched Bing in early June to much fanfare. Since then, Bing has shown slow but relentless growth in its market share.

Web analytics firm comScore’s (NASDAQ: SCOR) latest search engine statistics reflect that. For U.S. searches in October — the most recent month the firm has tracked — Bing reached 9.9 percent share. That’s still puny compared to Google’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) share in October of 65.4 percent, though.

On Wednesday, Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president for Microsoft’s online audience business, told investors and financial analysts that the company is “ahead of expectations” in terms of Bing’s market share, but that rapid innovation is crucial to its long-term success.

“We have a very long way to go in search, [where we’re] outgunned by Google’s scale advantage,” Mehdi said.

Nadella’s post underlined Microsoft’s determination to persevere, and to ultimately win the search game. “We are running a post mortem to find out how our software and processes need to be improved to prevent anything like this from happening again,” his post said.

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