With Bing, Microsoft Finds Some Good Web Search Ideas

By Rob Pegoraro
Friday, June 5, 2009; 9:47 AM

What kind of company would try to start a new search engine now? Years after most people have grown accustomed to plugging queries into Google or, less often, Yahoo, anybody hoping to shake up that state of affairs had better bring both persistence and a pile of cash to the table.

In other words, it might help to be Microsoft, which launched a search engine called Bing (http://bing.com) on Wednesday.

Bing suffers from some handicaps, starting with one whose initials happen to spell out: "But It's Not Google." Yet it works fairly well as a general-purpose search engine, outperforms competitors in a couple of areas and makes a major contribution to mobile Web searching. There's something to see here, and it's not just the hype that $100 million or so of marketing can buy.

This somewhat artsy site (mouse over the home page's background photo for Easter egg links) seems to handle most routine "where is this?" queries as well as other search sites. Sometimes Bing beat Google, such as when it found an old column of mine when its competitor could only suggest pages talking about that story. In other cases, Google served up the correct result and it was Bing that yielded second-hand links.

Searches on more generic terms, however, can leave Bing confused. When I looked up the company that placed an automated polling call to my home, Bing was lost unless I enclosed my query in quotes. Google's results directed me to a report on its activities.

Bing search results include a clever bonus: a preview of each page's text that appears when you float the cursor to the right of each result. But if you position the cursor in the wrong place, you won't even see the vertical line and orange circle that are meant to cue you about this feature's existence.

On the other hand, Bing makes its advanced-search options a little more accessible than Google's, since selecting them doesn't take you away from your current search results.

Like Google, Bing uses "geolocation" technology to serve up results in your neighborhood, as determined by your computer's Internet Protocol address. But while it had no problem suggesting nearby dining options in response to the general query of "burrito," it couldn't locate a specific restaurant by name that Google correctly placed on the map.

Note that your IP address will remain in Microsoft's log of your search for the next 18 months. In comparison, Google starts to anonymize its log data after nine months, and Yahoo only waits 90 days to wipe its records.

If you search for a sufficiently well-known topic, Bing can present more relevant details than Google: Its answers to a query for "Washington Nationals" included the team's schedule for this week, plus its record and standings for the year and links to info about its ballpark, history, tickets and other subtopics. Google offered little more than the score of the Nats' last game.

Like other search sites, Bing offers image- and video-specific modes. These permit more fine-tuning options than Google's but don't deliver as wide a range of results. Bing fared even worse in news searches, where it often located far fewer items than Google News.

Bing looked best in two more specialized types of research. Its shopping search tool builds on Microsoft's earlier Live Cashback Search, allowing retailers to offer rebates to buyers who click through search results. The net effect of these kickbacks can easily undercut the prices located by other shopping sites.

Bing's travel search benefits from the Farecast site Microsoft bought last year, which uses a database of airfares to generate predictions of an itinerary's cost. You can then sift through available routings by numerous trip criteria, such as landing or layover times (though the consistently excellent Kayak.com offers still more flexibility).

Bing's mobile site (http://m.bing.com) leaves out the cashback and travel features but delivers the basics of Web searching in a clean, simple package. If you select an option on its search-settings page, it will also automatically reformat Web pages to fit your phone's screen. Bing performed that job much better than Yahoo's mobile site and with better navigation options than Google's -- even on a Palm phone's creaky Web browser.

In its 1.0 state, Bing doesn't offer enough to convince Google users to defect in large numbers. (For one thing, they'd have to change the default searches on their browsers -- which, in Apple's Safari, requires extra tinkering to allow a choice besides Google or Yahoo.) It does, however, put Microsoft in a position to win the attention of users dissatisfied with Google or Yahoo's performance on some types of searches.

That may not sound like much, but it should get Microsoft -- which has more resources to throw at this problem than such embattled competitors as Yahoo, AOL or Ask.com -- off to an effective restart in this market. And that's good: Web search is too important to leave to one company, no matter how many times that company pledges that it won't be evil.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at robp@washpost.com. Read more at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward.

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