Today’s search engines – believe it or not there are others besides Google – do a great job of helping us navigate the Web and find information, but Microsoft reckons they don’t do a very good job of enabling us to ‘use’ the information we find. Microsoft may have developed a contender that threatens Google’s Web search dominance. Bing (previously called Kumo) was developed around three main design goals: deliver great results; deliver a more organised experience; and simplify tasks and provide insight, leading to faster, more confident decisions.
And it works! In fact, it was reported recently that Bing has so upset Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin that he has tasked top engineers to work on ‘urgent upgrades’ to its own search service. Brin is said to be leading a team to determine how Microsoft’s search algorithm differs from the closely guarded one Google employs, which is a rare move considering Google’s co-founders rarely have such a hands-on involvement in the company’s daily operations.
Microsoft’s Bing is essentially a search engine – and an $80 million brand! It is specifically designed to build on the benefits of today’s search engines by focussing initially on four key vertical areas: making a purchase decision, planning a trip, researching a health condition or finding a local business. So much so that Microsoft is actually calling this technology a Decision Engine, rather than a search engine. The new service is totally free, of course, and can be located at www.bing.com.
Similar to all Microsoft’s products, Bing looks lush (there’s a new home page image every day), is a snap to use, and delivers solid relevancy plus some new features that might even hook a few into staying. It’s also very quick. Building on Microsoft’s old search engine, ‘Live Search’, probably the most significant change is that Bing organises search results into categories on the Explore Pane. For example, after searching for ‘winston churchill’, a list of related searches appear that are listed at the top left of the pages.
This is Bing telling you that for the topic of ‘winston churchill,’ it has results for his quotes, school, biography, photos, speeches, Wikipedia entry, and – inevitably – Adolf Hilter. Not every search brings up these links and they’re more likely to appear for queries relating to broad subjects such as automobiles (car models, manufacturers), travel and local (countries, cities, points of interest like museums and parks), and people (celebrities, athletes, musicians, bands, politicians). Over time, more queries should get categorised. Clicking on any of these category links drills down in into more specific results.
Bing includes a number of other features that help to organise search results more effectively. Web Groups rounds up results in both on the Explore Pane and in the actual results, and Related Searches and Quick Tabs are essentially a table of contents for different categories of search results. Another really cool feature is Preview, a hover-over window that expands over a search result caption to provide a better sense of the related site’s relevancy. A killer feature is being able to preview and watch videos directly from the results page without having to click through.
Infinite Image Scroll won’t go unmissed, letting you browse images from a single scrolling page of results instead of clicking though pages, and Image Refinement lets you filter your image search size (small, medium, large, wallpaper), layout (square, wide, tall), colour (B&W or colour), style (photograph or illustration) or people (all, just faces, head & shoulders, other) to get the exact image you’re looking for. Just as Google has built-in maps, Bing has its own mapping tool in the form of Multimap. And whereas the integrated Caio shopping engine is a welcome touch, it isn’t anywhere near as good as Google’s equivalent. Lastly, type the first few letters of a search term and Bing’s auto-complete will suggest the most likely options to complete the phrase.
Bing is a big advancement for Microsoft’s search efforts, but it’s still no Google Killer. By Microsoft’s own admission it is chasing Yahoo, who is in second place in the search market. A much more competitive product than Live Search, Bing is a start (or restart) for Microsoft and improvements will continue to roll out over time. For search results it’s still not as intuitive or effective as Google, but at least searches are fast. Bing’s greatest achievement is the presentation of data and its exemplary image and video search facilities. While most of us aren’t going to become bingers overnight, Google could certainly learn a couple of things from Microsoft’s developments.