Google's design is plain as paper. Except for its colorful logo, the homepage feels sanitized—no more than a search box and blinking cursor. In the search engine landscape, which used to consist of butlers guiding your queries (AskJeeves) and dogs fetching you answers (Lycos), design has become, well, boring.
Except at Microsoft, where Bing's unique approach to homepage design has garnered word-of-mouth buzz for the gorgeous background graphics that are updated daily. "The Internet is not black and white," says Stephanie Horstmanshof, managing editor of Bing and the so-called "queen of the homepage." Horstmanshof recently gave Fast Company an inside look at how the creative process works at Bing and how images are helping to drive traffic away from Google. "We wanted to bring some of that beauty in," she says. "We thought it was a way to differentiate—to make things come alive and more approachable."
You might not imagine a bunch of editors running around looking for sexy, captivating photographs all day at Microsoft, but that's exactly the case at Bing, says Horstmanshof. She heads up a team of photo editors, writers, and producers tasked with helping draw more users to Bing.com. "Hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of pretty pictures come to us all the time—they're beautiful, but a lot of times they just look like a postcard," she says. "For us, the biggest thing is that it makes you want to find out more about it."
Every few weeks, the team gathers for a few hours to vote photographs up or down gathered from 14 different image providers, including the Bill Gates-owned Corbis. ("It's the best meeting you'll ever be in," Horstmanshof says.) From there, a writer will take an initial pass at a photograph's hotspots, the in-image overlays that provide users with interesting factoids about the picture and links to fun related aspects of it. The team will then have a creative review to look over the package, and brainstorm more ideas.
The idea, of course, is to drive more traffic to Bing's various portals: Bing Images, Shopping, News, Travel, and more. For example, "if there's a location tied to an image, we always will have a map [linked to it]," Horstmanshof says, "because that's the first thing people want to know: Where is that?"
It's working. Bing has been growing consistently, thanks to innovative (and expensive) advertising campaigns and partnerships with companies such as Facebook and Kayak. Reports have pegged the engine's market share at roughly 30%. Yet Microsoft's use of images, especially cute pictures of squirrels, is what's really giving Google a run for its money.
Over the years, the team has started to learn what images entice users most. Event-specific photographs, for instance, tend to drive tons of traffic: images from India's Holi festival, for "national squirrel appreciation day," or of a solar eclipse.
Bing also sees big traffic "anytime we put animals up," says Horstmanshof. "People just love animals."