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September 16th, 2009 Seth Walker | Featured Stories
 

The Thing About Bing

When software and search engine gods fight, we mortals reap the internet benefits.

     
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IMAGE: Tim Gough

Microsoft calls its new search engine, Bing, the world’s first “decision engine.” Whatever. It’s a search engine. But love Microsoft or hate it, you should familiarize yourself with Bing because it’s about to become No. 2, and because (for the moment) it’s actually better than Google at finding that latest must-know Portland thing—from restaurant menus to where to get a cup of coffee—before Sunday’s New York Times gushes about it.

A little history: For more than half a decade, Microsoft has floundered in the world of search, but it thinks it finally has a winner with 3 1/2-month-old Bing. Microsoft is spending a reported $100 million on advertising, and it recently inked a 10-year deal to power all Yahoo searches with Bing technology. In other words, once the feds have determined the deal doesn’t violate any antitrust laws, Microsoft or Google will run nine out of 10 searches in the U.S.

Microsoft claims “users are dissatisfied” with Google because people expect more than “ten blue links on a page.” Half of all searches fail to return the correct result on the first try, Microsoft says, so its goal with Bing is to guess what people are looking for and deliver it faster than Google.

For example, if you search “UPS” or “FedEx,” Bing will guess you want to track a package and embed a locator in the search result. That means you don’t have to leave Bing to track a package. Or, if you search “bike Portland,” Bing will guess you want to find a bike shop and condense a list of the stores and their phone numbers at the top of the page. It will cover its bet by providing links to “related searches” such as bike rides and tours (example: Seattle to Portland) on the left side of the screen, along with a running tally of your search history (handy). By comparison, an identical search on Google delivers BikePortland.org as the top result, some “sponsored links” to product deals on the right side of the page, and just a few links to related searches at the bottom of the page. (Google did provide a related search link called “fixed gear gallery,” at the bottom of the page. Perhaps Google really does know Portland....)

The good news about Bing’s constant “suggestions” is that they hold the potential to save you time, and that will create more room for those guilty pleasures; say, reading Free Will Astrology or trying to wrap your head around that video of Joe Wilson yelling “You lie!” at Obama.

The bad news about Bing’s constant “suggestions” is that they steer you toward products, and that, of course, makes advertisers happy. Microsoft claims its “suggestions” are part of the evolving “journey of search” and that they will save people time, given that, according to Microsoft, people dedicate two-thirds of their searches to decision-making (where to go to dinner, where to go on vacation) and one-third of their time to routine searches (bank balances, weather). But don’t take Microsoft’s word for it: You can conduct your own head-to-head search comparisons all you like at bing-vs-google.com. Be warned: It’s addictive.

Despite Bing’s impressive start, it will be some time before it processes Google’s one petabyte of user-generated data every hour (it’s estimated that all U.S. academic research libraries combined contain two petabytes of info). Where Bing could really potentially kick Google’s butt in is the Twitter department. Both Portland’s viral Dave Chappelle concert this summer and the more sobering anecdote of Iran’s post-election “Twitter revolution” illuminate the newest problem in the world of search: The difficulty of finding, sorting and confirming all of the per-second information bubbling on Twitter, Facebook and blogs.

For the moment, Bing has a slight advantage over Google on this next holy grail of search, an area now known as “social search.” Microsoft recently partnered with tech innovation leaders Federated Media to create the handy-and-useful BingTweets (bingtweets.com), which fuses Bing search results and related Twitter traffic on a single page. Bing is also starting to return tweets from some of the more prominent and prolific Twitterers in its main search engine results. In Federated’s words: “Bing has people thinking a bit differently about search.”

Why is Microsoft doing all of this? Search engines are one of the world’s best tools for tracking human thinking and movement; Google has sold its insights to advertisers and marketers on its way to a $141 billion market capitalization—now within sight of Microsoft’s $209 billion. In the race for a better way to search, Microsoft’s got a ways to go before it can overtake Google, whose name is so synonymous with search it’s often used as a verb. But Bing is a good first step by Microsoft to prove it can beat Google at its own game, and the mostly positive reviews of Bing since its June launch seem to validate its efforts.

Google—never one to back away from a fight with Microsoft—is not only readying improvements to its search engine, it’s likely to acquire technology from one of the many startups working to solve the real-time search challenge.

Assuming that Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, does not block the Yahoo-Microsoft search deal, it’s likely that a new term will enter the American vernacular: Bing it.

What You Need to Know About Bing

  • It’s not bad (surprise)! Bing tries to guess what you’re looking for so you don’t have to refine your search multiple times.

  • It keeps a useful running tally of your search history on the left side of the screen.

  • It’s better than Google at finding Tweets and other real-time Web information.

  • It’s equal to Google in the video and image department.

  • Its news feature doesn’t compete with Google News. But, just during the reporting of this story, Bing’s news page did start indexing and displaying more photos in their news section, as well as more news stories.

Seth Walker is a freelance writer based in Portland and former Intel tech geek.
 
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