Microsoft's New Search Engine: Bing, Bang, Boom
Microsoft's new search engine has the consumer goods, but does it do enough for loyal enterprise customers?
- By David Barney
Entering the search engine business is a risky venture: Thanks to the dominance of Google Inc., competition is next to impossible. Older rivals have faded in Google's shadow -- farewell, Ask.com and AltaVista -- and every year another Cuil pops up, threatens to take over the industry, and fades. So why bother going after an industry that's essentially already monopolized? It seems like a futile effort. Unless, of course, you're Microsoft. Bing, Microsoft's new search engine, hopes to offer a serious alternative to Google and what's left of the older search engines.
Microsoft hopes to topple Google's search monopoly with what the company calls a "decision engine." The key to success lies in maintaining uniqueness in Bing while still offering familiar -- but better -- functionality than its competitors.
How does Bing measure up to Google? A dozen Redmond readers weighed in on Bing: what they like, what they'd like to see added, what they had to complain about. This article was reported about four months after the launch of Bing, so these readers had time to get intimate with the search engine. Here, they tell us about all the quirks that turned them on or off when using the product.
In order to compete with Google, Microsoft must be hardcore about returning relevant results. The last thing the company wants is for Bing to end up as another Cuil. Gail Vandenter, a technical analyst for IS technical services at Nibco Inc. in Elkhart, Ind., thinks Bing is on the right track. Vandenter says: "The first time I 'Binged,' wham, right there on the top line of the results page was the answer I was looking for. So, yes, I Bing. I haven't used another search tool since."
Others agree with Vandenter that the still-young Bing is already better. "Bing results are as relevant -- or more relevant -- than Google results in 90 percent of my searches," says President of DCS Group Doug Steinschneider, who runs www.bing-vs-google.com to compare results.
Bing is not only more accurate, but more intelligent in its returns, declares Larry Monuteaux, network services administrator for Boston Properties. "While Google seems to give more results overall, Bing gives more directed, relevant results," he says. "After a while, I set Bing as my default and haven't looked back."
In some cases, Google and Bing are a much closer match. "I use both Google and Bing, and accuracy seems about the same," remarks Peter Spearing, a network and PC support specialist. "In fact, the top 20 or so sites returned for most searches are identical, or nearly so. In a search for 'idpa,' Bing reports the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services fourth, while Google makes it third. Google places video links in the results, while Bing doesn't. Both return results in the hundreds of thousands and do so very quickly, though the usefulness of this overabundance of matches is questionable. I can't imagine that more than the first hundred are even remotely useful to anyone," Spearing adds.
So are the days of Google dominance over? If you listen to Redmond readers, the established search giant is being given a run for its money by Microsoft's youthful new tool. But even with such reader praise, there are plenty of Bing naysayers.
Mark O'Brien, chief technologist for SpectraRep LLC, says that after comparing Bing and Google, Google still returns more accurate results for him. To better test this theory, he uses Google at work and Bing at home. "Many times at home I have to re-run the Bing search on Google to get usable information," says O'Brien.
Not only does O'Brien find Google to be more useful, but he has found that, even on a Microsoft-specific search, Bing does not measure up. "I wanted more information on Microsoft's new free anti-virus tool. I typed 'Microsoft Security Essentials' into Bing, and the first page it took me to said I was in a country where Microsoft Essentials wasn't available for download. When I typed it into Google, it took me to the Microsoft Security Essentials homepage," says O'Brien.
It's appalling that these Bing shortcomings still exist this far after its debut, says Redmond reader Walt Crosby. "I was looking for information on installing the Visual Studio .NET 2008 Remote Debugger. When I typed 'Google' into Internet Explorer, it threw me over to Bing," explains Crosby, who is vice president of development for Interval Data Systems Inc. in Waltham, Mass. "I searched for 'VS .NET 2008 Remote Debugger' in Bing, and the mish-mash of stuff that came up wasn't helpful. I re-requested Google, used it, and -- bingo -- I found what I wanted with the same exact search within the first two items returned. How can Microsoft not even deeply index their own sites as well as Google?" Crosby asks.
"People are comfortable with Google, so if Bing is too different, there will be a learning curve. If they're exactly the same, there's no benefit to switch. Microsoft found a nice balance."
Mark O'Brien, Chief Technologist, SpectraRep LLC
More of Everything
Quality of results is important, but a large and comprehensive quantity of pertinent links is also key. Competing with other engines that have been crawling the Web for years is tricky. Users are mixed in their reactions to Bing's returns.
Bing delivers fewer but more relevant results for DCS Group's Steinschneider. "Bing seems to bring back a lower quantity of better-quality links," he says. "Every time I learn about a new search engine I switch to it for a few days. Until Bing, I always switched back to Google for better relevancy and speed. Bing is the first new search engine in all these years that I've stayed with after a couple of days, and I've been using Bing since its official launch," he adds.
But quantity doesn't mean quality for all users. Mateus de Carvalho, software engineer and architect at the University of Oregon, compared the amount of results returned by Yahoo!, Google and Bing, though he says quantity is unimportant if the search results aren't precise: "You want to find your result in the first couple of pages," he explains. In one of de Carvalho's test searches, "Yahoo! returned the most results, 2,147,483,647; Google came in second with 648,000,000; and Bing was third with 135,000,000." De Carvalho explains the significance of these results: "Yahoo! was the first on the market, and it has more records; Google was second. Maybe Bing is in third because it was the third to come. This means eventually it might return the same amount of stuff," de Carvalho concludes.
Though Yahoo! will probably be part of Bing in the future, as of press time, a deal between Microsoft and Yahoo! Inc. was not yet in force.
Some users just aren't that impressed by Bing yet, and only use it to find items that Google may have overlooked. "To test the veracity of information on the Web, especially if you're relying on it for business use, you should check across different Web sites anyway and even use more than one browser to see if there are any conflicting results," says Alan Rutherford, a business systems analyst based in Sydney, Australia.
Nobody wants to wait and wait for a search engine to return results. When we search, we want instant gratification. In a world where Google returns results in fractions of a second, Microsoft hopes to give results even faster with Bing.
Many Bing users report that speed isn't something to worry about. "Bing has proven that it provides results that are at least as good as those of Google's, and often better. And it performs much faster," claims Redmond reader Larry Monuteaux.
Bing's speed, even with its decorative layouts and features turned on, continues to surprise users. "Despite the extras like the graphical homepage and shopping links, it feels snappy and plenty fast," says SpectraRep's O'Brien.
With today's connection speeds, latency is rarely a factor. "I'm usually accessing it on fast cable connections on powerful hardware, so the results are instant on both Google and Bing," notes Steinschneider.
Swiss Army Knife of Functions
Power users often appreciate the integration of features for a more streamlined and easier search experience. Bing's incorporation of related searches in a prominent sidebar and its plethora of search categories are a bid to satisfy even the most feature-hungry Web surfers.
These extra tools are useful and make the search experience easier, Steinschneider says. "I like the Explore Pane's Quick Tabs and the related search links," he explains. "I like the history feature where I can see all my searches with links for those pages I opened. The visual layout is clearer, and I like the way Bing organizes further search results in links by category."
The new tools also add uniqueness. "I like that Microsoft it trying to differentiate itself by coming up with these new hooks. The layout is well thought out," says O'Brien.
Monuteaux seconds that emotion, noting: "The video previews are very cool."
Bing's ability to refine searches more specifically than Google is proving helpful. "The ability to search images, blogs, and so on is very useful," says Jim Szopinski, executive vice president at Binary Research International Inc. in Glendale, Wis. "In images, for example, having the ability to do granular searches by size, color and style comes in handy."
Making Things Easier
More important than features is ease of use. Bing's approach to organizing results is different from Google's, but it's ultimately up to the users to decide if it's more effective. "I like the way Bing tries to organize information into categories. They have galleries in the picture search. I love the video preview when you hover over a video still," says O'Brien.
Other users find that Bing's presentation of results is cleaner. "I like the presentation of images and videos in Bing without paging on the bottom," says the University of Oregon's de Carvalho. "The new results just show on the page as you scroll down. This is awesome. The video previewing on Bing is very cool, and it even has sound."
"I've used Bing on and off and swap between it and Google. I like the fact that, like Google, Bing has an uncluttered opening page. I also like the wallpaper and the hotspots giving you information about the picture," notes Rutherford.
Setting itself apart from its search competitors is a tall order for Bing. One of the most easily recognizable distinctions is the interface. For O'Brien, Microsoft found the sweet spot between familiar and progressive. "It has to be different.
Different is not necessarily better or worse," O'Brien notes. "People are comfortable with Google, so if Bing is too different, there will be a learning curve. If they're exactly the same, there's no benefit to switch. Microsoft found a nice balance."
Others believe Bing's look is just more of the same. "The interfaces of Bing and Google aren't much different -- Bing looks a lot different, but the main choices are similar,"
Redmond reader Spearing says. "Bing has visual search, but that doesn't work well for me. I like Google's 'I'm feeling lucky' option. Searches for video and images isn't impressive in Bing; image quality is probably impractical to automate, but relevance should be achievable," he adds.
Though there's some sentiment that the interfaces are too similar, one user gives Bing an edge over Google. "I want to be able to enter my search terms quickly and get my results easily. Both Google and Bing do this, but Bing's little 'more info' dot to the right of the results is proving to be a nice time-saver," says Monuteaux.
Sometimes Bing's smaller features are more of a hassle than help. "I appreciate Google's goals of speed and simplicity, but it's taken it too far. On the other hand, I don't like waiting the split second for the Bing homepage image to launch. Bing should add an option to their preferences that lets you turn off the image," argues Steinschneider.
Microsoft clearly worked hard to make Bing aesthetically pleasing. "The front-page photo and background facts available as you hover in the image are interesting and educational. That's a nice feature," says Binary Research International's Szopinski.
Even if Bing is as good as its competitors, users may see no reason to switch to it. That's why Microsoft has to make it unique enough to stand out, but not too radical. One way that the company has been doing so is their touting of Bing as a "decision engine," complete with the tagline "Bing and Decide." In marketing materials, Microsoft says: "Bing will help you make smarter, faster decisions. We included features that deliver the best results, presented in a more organized way to simplify key tasks and help you make important decisions faster."
Joe Suchy, president and owner of Spirit Led Development LLC, buys that argument. "Bing is much more than just a search engine. When searching for restaurants you get reviews as well. When using Bing Travel you get comparisons of prices and research on prices. It really is well done and very useful," he concludes.
The decision engine aspect seems to be a bit puzzling to some Bing users. "I'm still trying to figure the decision making feature out," de Carvalho admits. "But, technically, it's one of the features that aren't offered by the other search engines. Also unique is Visual Search, though I know that Google has been working on something similar for quite a while now," he adds.
Reader Steinschneider is pleased by the competition that Bing offers, and wonders if Google can innovate enough to keep up. "I find these large technology companies can move very slowly when there is no danger of losing their audience," he explains.
Steinschneider notes Microsoft's whole approach to expanding search tools is a huge part of Bing's attraction. "I like that Bing extends beyond basic search, and I like the document preview," he explains. "I'm a fan of Microsoft's idea that through tools like Silverlight we can have a rich experience without installing software. The Google approach of constraining all UI features to what can be done inside a browser is a step back," he adds.
Now for the Negatives
Being relatively new to the search engine game, Bing does have idiosyncrasies that irk some users. First of all, Microsoft may be trying to do too much with the search tool.
[Click on image for larger view.]
|Bing reviews give depth to restaurant choices.
"Bing spends too much time trying to interpret what I want," kvetches Senior Database Administrator and Redmond reader David Fulton. "I've got a brain -- I don't need a search engine to decide what I'm looking for. It always gives me twice as much as I want and half of what I need. I know the technophiles love anything with Microsoft in front of it, but for me, search is just a tool. If you get good tools and learn to use them, you do better work than if you just keep buying new tools and hope they make you competent."
Many also complain that Bing hasn't integrated Microsoft's enterprise search tools such as the high-end FAST ESP, the lower-end Search Server 2008 Express, and, of course, the granddaddy of document management and search, SharePoint. Microsoft currently has no announced plans for tight integration with these tools, or to have the Bing engine drive enterprise tools.
Despite the lack of integration, some Bing users feel Microsoft would be well served by infusing its enterprise tools with Bing technology. "At every place I've worked, there have been bits of very important information that only a few people knew," explains Spirit Led Development's Suchy. "Several companies have tried enterprise wikis, which work to some extent but often are difficult to search. A Bing search engine in front of a wiki -- even in front of enterprise reporting and dashboard tools -- could be very useful," he concludes.
Direct to Desktop
Users familiar with desktop searches know that Google has a fairly popular desktop search tool in Google Desktop. Should Microsoft do the same? So far the company is non-committal, but does point to advances in Windows 7 file searching.
Bing users have mixed feelings. "I never found Google Desktop search to be more useful than the search capability built into the OS, and I probably wouldn't install any other third-party search products," says Spearing.
Monuteaux disagrees and wants Bing in the enterprise and on the desktop. "An enterprise search offering using Bing on the back-end would be very useful indeed," he says. "It would be nice to integrate desktop and Web searching as well."
For the Developers
[Click on image for larger view.]
|Bing guides travel decisions.
With a new, competitive search engine on the scene, developers are scrambling to take advantage of everything Bing offers. But with Google being the default search engine in browsers such as Firefox, Microsoft has to make integration between Bing, Microsoft products and third-party products easy.
"Yes, it integrates. There's the Bing bar, and there's also an SDK for all kinds of developers at bing.com/developers," says de Carvalho. "Microsoft has an API that helps you integrate your apps with Bing features, like searching, mapping and so on. Bing also allows you to submit your Web site for a Bing crawl, or you can submit XML with your site map. In this process Microsoft includes things like detection of malware as it link -- crawls your Web site," he adds.
With Bing still relatively new to the game, Microsoft has made sure to provide a bag of goodies that enables developers to integrate or optimize Bing with just about anything. "Tools are available for developers that use .NET, PHP, JScript, the iPhone and more. These tools are also compliant with multiple protocols like JSON, XML and SOAP," says de Carvalho.
Bing pleases plenty of Redmond readers, but getting folks to switch is another thing entirely. "The TV commercials suggest that Bing will sort out the information you need from the noise of the Internet, but I don't find that it works any better than Google or Yahoo!," says Spearing. "There's no reason to switch from Google to Bing."
Switching to Bing is also a matter of adjustment. "I'm an expert with Google search operators," says Steinschneider. "I need to get up-to-speed on Bing's equivalents."
There are also philosophical issues that work for and against Bing. Some Internet users avoid Microsoft products and prefer Google instead of Bing. On the flip side, there are some who will choose Bing because they don't like Google.
"Part of my reason for avoiding Google is it's becoming too intrusive," says Szopinski. "The fact that it tracks everything and stores that information, and the fact that it doesn't represent the same values that I have, has turned me away from it."
"Look at Google this way," adds Andrew Peterson, principal at consultancy Realized Design, "Google is great if you're looking for what everyone else has looked for. If you're going against the herd, Google is working against you."
David says: I've used Google for about seven years. I'm used to it, I know its quirks; I'm attached to it. Google is my old standby and feels natural.
As I came across Ask.com -- formerly AskJeeves -- Yahoo!, MSN Live Search and other engines, I turned my nose up after five minutes. Cuil only lasted one minute. None felt as comfortable as Google. I thought the same would happen with Bing, but I gave it a shot anyway. After comparisons with Google, my reaction was: "Bing is solid." It's not too different from Google, and is a nice change of pace. For the first time, I was pleased by a search engine other than Google. But for now, I'm sticking with Google. Maybe I'm biased toward the search engine that's served me so well. I also like how Google services are all integrated with things like e-mail. Don't get me wrong. I like Bing. But my loyalty to Google is a stronger force -- for now. It's your turn, Microsoft.