What I Think About the Bing Outage

Bing, the upstart search engine nee portal nee discovery service that had been riding the crest of a goodwill wave, saw that wave come crashing down last night — both literally and figuratively. The site was down from 6:24 p.m. to 7:10 p.m. PT, according to some reports. And with that crash came the jokes, especially on Twitter.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s senior VP of online service , wrote on the Bing Blog:

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 incomplete results page. The cause of the outage was a configuration change during some internal testing that had unfortunate and unintended consequences. As soon as the issue was detected, the change was rolled back, which caused the site to return to normal behavior. Unfortunately the detection and rollback took about half an hour, and during that time users were unable to use bing.com.

The timing was terrible. The company had just rolled out a set of new features, for which it got positive reviews. The outage has given many a chance to gleefully say: Well, it was only a matter of time; it is Microsoft, after all. Or: Now that’s a good way to blow $100 million marketing dollars! And the critics are right — when trying to establish your brand and service against a near monopoly, you can’t afford to have even one such outage. The negative publicity is going to counter all the progress made by Bing, rendering its marketing campaign moot.

My view is pretty benign. Web failures happen. They happens to small companies such as ours; they even happen to Google’s offerings, currently the gold standard for web infrastructure. Amazon has had issues, too.

The bigger cause for concern for Microsoft was how muted the hue and cry over the Bing failure was. I remember the day Gmail went down, both in September and back in February — it seemed to be the only thing people were talking about, indicating how critical it had become to our daily digital lives. Last night, the robomeme was more excited about Google’s DNS service than the failure of the second-largest Internet search service. A comment I overheard (and tweeted) while I was picking up dinner last night in the SOMA district of San Francisco sums it up best: Bing was down. It’s like a tree fell in forest and no one heard it.

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