Microsoft’s new search engine Bing has been aggressively trying to scrape away at Google’s search dominance with a $100 million advertising campaign, but Ask.com has found traction betting a smaller ad budget on the racetrack.

Since last December, Ask has put nearly all of its marketing resources into NASCAR sponsorships and events. And early returns show that the strategy appears to be working.

Ask.com has spent the better part of a $10 million ad budet on NASCAR related advertising, which includes team and league deals, a sponsorship of Bobby Labonte’s car at Hall of Fame Racing, a special NASCAR.com toolbar, big ad spends with Fox on the first 13 Sprint Cup races and a presence at the
track with a team of Ask Ambassadors.

Ask.com president Scott Garell Garell tells SportsBusinessJournal:

“We selected NASCAR because of its famously loyal fans and because we thought we could create the best search experience for the fans on the Web. We were looking to appeal to audiences, not so much on a product level, but on a fan experience level.”

As a result, the search engine has seen its popularity go up with NASCAR fans and its ranking rise against other search engines.

ComScore places Ask as the fourth most popular search engine, and Nielsen data shows that Ask’s market share has grown from 1.9 percent to 2.2 percent from January to June of this year, a growth of 22%. Also, a study commissioned by Ask.com has the search enine’s usage up 12% among NASCAR fans and awareness and positive impressions up 43% and 14%, respectively.

While the numbers are small, it shows that Ask’s outlay on NASCAR during the recession has had an effect.

It remains to be seen if the gains with the NASCAR audience will remain after the ad dollars go away, but it does show that online search has a lot to do with brand recognition.

Google still has a stranglehold on the market with 63.2% of search dollars online. And the fact that Google is now a verb in our lexicon works against other brands in the space. But even Google executives admit that there is room in the market to further improve search algorithms, which is where Bing is hoping to make its mark. Microsoft is spending a large part of its $100 million budet on ads like this one, which try to prove that search is still a problem in need of a solution.

Bing is making small gains with that approach. And while brand promotion strategies like Ask’s might help get the engine into more markets, it’ll be the company that figures out the final pieces of the search puzzle (or at least convinces consumers it has) that will see the biggest returns.

Photo: SFGate