Sometimes, you can come in second and still win the game.
At least that's how many analysts see the search engine battle among Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's new Bing, the last of which has steadily been gaining market share thanks to a relentless ad blitz.
If Microsoft displaces second banana Yahoo — and the latest numbers indicate it's about to — it could change more than just the face of search online.
"A realistic goal would be to surpass Yahoo" rather than Google, says Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of the Search Engine Land blog, "and that would be a huge achievement."
Bing launched just a month ago, but it already appears headed toward that goal. According to StatCounter, Bing increased Microsoft's search market share from 7.81 percent in May to 8.5 percent last month.
Other research firms have also noted a rising increase in Bing's popularity, seemingly at the expense of Google, which dropped slightly, from 78.72 percent to 78.48 percent, during the same period. Second-place Yahoo increased from 10.99 percent to 11.04 percent.
"But the numbers are far too preliminary," says Sullivan. "We need to see what happens 2 months from now."
Other analysts agree.
"What we're seeing now is a very clever ad campaign that is creating awareness," says Kevin Ryan, chief marketing officer at advertising and search firm WebVisible. "The only way to tell if it works is to see what their market share is 6 months after the ad budget dries up."
Of course, this is more than a mere numbers game.
If Microsoft's Bing surpasses Yahoo — and stays ahead — it could scuttle, or even reignite, rumors of a merger between the two companies. (Preliminary talks fell apart last year in a spate of name-calling and finger-pointing.)
It may also enable Microsoft to finally make a plausible attempt at breaking Google's stranglehold on the online advertising business.
For consumers, Bing's initial attraction is obvious.
Search results are presented in a soothing, attractive layout, with uncluttered listings that not only include a short opening sentence from the listed site but also a pop-up summary that appears to the side. Video search results play within the Bing screen automatically.
Such features mean fewer clicks and less hunting back and forth, compared to Google and Yahoo results pages.
Furthermore, Google's text-heavy, plane-Jane appearance hasn't changed much since it was launched in 1998. And in some specialized searches, such as for health-care topics and celebrity Twitter posts, Bing appears to be ahead.
The overall design of Bing is intended to increase the amount of time people spend at the site, its "stickiness." The more time searchers stay there rather than hopping from search result to search result, the better the potential ad market for Microsoft.
But so far the increased market share hasn't translated into higher advertising volume, says WebVisible's Ryan.
Ultimately, Microsoft may have its eye on the big picture; namely, the big picture in the living room.
Bing looks and feels similar to the latest Xbox 360 interface, which includes not only online games but also instantly playable rental movies from Netflix.
Meanwhile, Yahoo is pushing its own online Internet applications for televisions, with several models from Vizio and Samsung slated to appear this fall with widgets for sites like Twitter, Amazon — and Netflix.