Microsoft president Brad Smith has said the company wants to ramp up investment into its Bing search offering to make it “comparable” to its competitors.
The comments, outlined in a blog post published on 3 February, come as the Australian government doubles down on its efforts to bring in new legislation forcing Google to pay for local news links it displays on its hugely popular search engine.
While Smith made no mention of Google specifically, it is clear that Microsoft is positioning itself to swoop in and pick up local search-related ad dollars should Google go ahead with its threat to cut off Australian users to its search engine if the government makes good on its own threat to pass and enforce the proposed rules.
At the very least, the company seems to be positioning itself to be made out as the default alternative if people in Australia and, most importantly, businesses shift their search loyalty away from Google.
Last week, Smith said, he and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella spoke with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher about the government’s proposed rules, largely aimed at addressing a bargaining power imbalance between digital platforms and Australian news businesses.
Smith said that, among the points Microsoft brought up with the government, was that the company fully supports the News Media Bargaining Code, even if, by his own admission, Microsoft is not actually subject to the legislation currently pending.
That said, Smith stressed Microsoft would still be willing to live by the proposed rules if the government designates the company as coming under the jurisdiction of the rules, should they be passed into law.
"The code reasonably attempts to address the bargaining power imbalance between digital platforms and Australian news businesses,” Smith said. “It also recognises the important role search plays, not only to consumers, but to the thousands of Australian small businesses that rely on search and advertising technology to fund and support their organisations.”
This is a far cry from comments made by Google Australia managing director Mel Silva, who told the government the proposed laws represent an untenable risk to the company and its search business in Australia.
This contrast, of course, demonstrates just how different Microsoft’s business model is from Google’s.
Regardless, Microsoft is not shying away from at least positioning itself to take some of the Australian search ad revenue pie, with Smith stating: “Microsoft will ensure that small businesses who wish to transfer their advertising to Bing can do so simply and with no transfer costs.
“We recognise the important role search advertising plays to the more than two million small businesses in Australia,” he added.
Importantly, Smith also indicated that Microsoft may actually put some work into bringing its search engine up to the lofty standards set by Google, long the leader in the search space.
“We will invest further to ensure Bing is comparable to our competitors and we remind people that they can help, with every search Bing gets better at finding what you are looking for,” he said.
While Smith’s comments may, at present, be little more than a publicity stunt, Microsoft is probably the top serious contender to Google’s search offering in Australia.
This means Australia could end up being a bit of a test case for the company in its efforts to creep up the market share ladder towards Google Search and, potentially, beyond.
It remains to be seen whether Google will really keep its promise if the government goes ahead with its plans to introduce the rules unchanged from their current form.
However, Microsoft is standing firm in its belief that the current legislative proposal represents a fundamental step towards a more level playing field and a fairer digital ecosystem for consumers, business and society.
There is some irony in a company that has itself faced up to the US government in a major antitrust law case revolving around its monopoly over the PC market defending the right to a level playing field.
However, perhaps there is some sincerity in Smith’s position. After all, he’s said Microsoft will remain in the game, even if it is ultimately hit by the proposed code as well.
“One thing is clear: while other tech companies may sometimes threaten to leave Australia, Microsoft will never make such a threat. We appreciate what Australia has long meant for Microsoft’s growth as a company, and we are committed to supporting the country’s national security and economic success,” Smith said.