Farecast could be Bing's best point of leverage
I've always liked the Farecast interface. It gives that feeling of true flexibility of refining your choices without you having to keep going back and endlessly redo your searches.
It is one of those few great examples of professional and expert power, put in the hands of the consumer by new web technologies.
The fact that it also lets you compare your results with other agent sites like Expedia is a boon too, because the consumer always wants to know what they could be getting elsewhere, and showing them, which no doubt will lead to a commission should they take that route, works out for everyone involved.
Integrating it into Bing's search results is a very nice touch, too, and puts it squarely ahead of Google on travel integration, and makes the Google SERPS seem almost vanilla by comparison.
This will increase the reach of these powerful, yet underused services dramatically, and if Bing captures serious market share then I think larger travel sites on the agent and direct side who have historically abhorred these services, will have to fall in and integrate with them to maintain their slice of the action.
One thing which has cheesed me off already though, is the lack of customisation for geography.
Prices in dollars, deals from US departure points are not going to help a UK consumer, and is likely to make those tempted to experiment early, nervous that 'here's another big global American company thinking the world = The United States'.
Clearly it's a gap in the Farecast offering, and hopefully it will be bridged soon either by expanding it (as loosley touted by Micorosft in a very non committal kind of way) or maybe by a tie up with someone like Kayak or Travelsupermarket who would be best able to satisfy the core functions. Such a deal would certainly help the likes of Kayak, who despite being an impressive first mover and industry consolidator have achieved relatively poor growth.
Either way, Bing needs to sort it. Google has their geo strategy worked down to a fine art, and if you're going to go head to head in search, on a global stage, then you should have the global thing worked out or cut out where needs be.
So which should they do? Well a tie up may well be better. If I were Microsoft, my biggest problem is that I've got pots of cash but no search audience.
I can't buy one because there isn't one, (at least not one that's for sale, or of any magnitude to make a difference).
But maybe... I can buy a vertical search audience, of which there are more, and which are of decent size, and perhaps are more willing as sellers. I could buy that, giving me the asset I'm after, and hope I can cross leverage that to grow loyalty in Bing as a search destination.
Or of course if history is anything to go by, they could just spend alot of time and money launching a nice but not so well known travel site, into nice but not so well known or used UK search engine.
Just take a look at Google trends for searches for Kayak, TS, Farecast etc. Why would you even bother if you had MS's pockets.
Google is weak in vertical search. Trying to hit it head on where its most dug in and fortified, even if you are an 800lb well armoured cash rich gorilla is going to end in tears, and will just prompt them to get their 800lb gorilla out of its box too.
Go round the flanks Bing!