After starting with MSN Search as a name and then moving to the thoroughly panned Live Search name, Microsoft is making yet another attempt to garner a greater share of the search (and related advertising) market. It is relaunching its search engine under the new name of Bing (www.bing.com) and calling it a "decision engine." Building upon much technology from the old Live Search, Bing has introduced several new features to its web search and related databases.
Stefan Weitz, a director on the Microsoft Search team, describes the development process: "[W]e recognize that people tell us four things that any engine has to have to be relevant: its relevance, its speed, its previews, its multi-media. ... We enhanced our indexing capabilities. We enhanced our crawling capabilities. We really enhanced performance to make the thing very, very fast. We really invested a lot in just getting the core of the engine to be highly relevant out of the gate." So let's see some of what's new and different.
Web Search Features
On the main Bing search page, most of the old, advanced Live Search features are still available, and at first glance, the search results can look very similar to Live Search. The initial screen has a new photo every day with various hot spots that link into information about the photo's topic via various Bing searches. New in the bottom-right corner is an arrow to scroll back through previous days' photos of the day.
Bing's search results pages have the most new features: the Explore Pane, Web Groups, and Previews. The most obvious is the new Explore Pane on the left-hand side of the search results. The Microsoft press release calls this "a dynamically relevant set of navigation and search tools." Depending on the search, Bing's Explore Pane can include Web Groups for limiting, additional databases, related searches, and a session search history. The search history shows the most recent searches for that browser session "with a maximum session time of 48 hours" according to the Bing help files. History can be turned off as well, or, using Silverlight, Bing's Save & Share lets searchers save their histories to their accounts and share the searches via email, Facebook, Windows Live, and Microsoft's free online storage system, SkyDrive.
The Web Groups limits show up at the top of the Explore Pane for certain popular topics, and they provide several limit options for the larger results set. For example, a search on british library (www.bing.com/search?q=british+library) shows Web Groups for Jobs, Store, Coupons, Tickets, and Tours. Not only are the Web Groups shown in the Explore Pane but the actual search results are broken out by these Web Groups. After the first five general web results on the page comes an orange Web Group heading for "British Library Jobs," followed by three jobs links; then, a heading for "British Library Store" is listed, followed by three store links, and so on, with each Web Group getting a heading and three links. Thus, even without increasing the default number of search results to more than 10, for queries that have Web Groups, more results are displayed and Bing categorizes the results. In addition to Web Groups, Bing links to results in other databases such as Images or Videos.
On the right-hand side of the results display, Bing adds more new information. Hover the cursor over a record and look to the right. A small vertical line with an orange dot in the center appears. Hover near that icon, and Bing displays a more in-depth extract, emphasizing information pulled from the page itself. Other search engines such as Ask show graphic screen shots on a mouseover, but Bing instead focuses on textual content. As Danny Sullivan writes (http://searchengineland.com/meet-bing-microsofts-new-search-engine-20093), "It's a nice feature that hopefully will get used, though it's easy to miss. It can allow you to better decide if you want to click through and save some time." These hover previews can even include deep links that do not show up in the regular results listing.
Deep links, Microsoft's name for subsite links that show up under a homepage result, have been increased to show up to eight. (Google calls these site links while Yahoo! calls them quick links.) According to Weitz, "Deep links are one of the top drivers of user satisfaction on the search page, and we invested a lot to increase the quality and number of sites that have deep links."
For some sites, Bing can show additional information. A search on nyt brings up The New York Times' website as the top result, with eight deep links plus the customer service phone number and a "Search within nytimes.com" search box. While Google often shows the search within box, the display of a customer service phone number is an addition not yet available elsewhere.
Another new feature is the Best Match, which highlights some No. 1 search results. For years search engines have placed the obvious answer for most navigation queries at the top of the results, but Bing's Best Match goes a bit further. In some cases, the Best Match is followed by the rest of the search results. In others, such as nyt, only one result is displayed as Best Match along with a link to "Search for other results containing" the query.
Bing also emphasizes other databases beyond the basic web search. In part, these additional databases are what Microsoft is developing to help with the "decision engine" part of Bing. Weitz describes how they "looked at the four very common sets of tasks-shopping and local, travel and health-and these are task areas that have ... very poor satisfaction today with search engines." So the travel section uses Microsoft's Farecast technology while Local integrates data from a variety of sources. According to Weitz, opinion-ranking technology is used in both the travel and shopping sections to summarize and categorize reviews into pros and cons.
Health is not a separately identified database, but the health search results are triggered by searching medical topics such as edema. The Web Groups that are triggered by health searches include topics such as Articles, Symptoms, Treatment, and Care. The Articles group brings up longer content from sources such as the Mayo Clinic, Medline Plus, MD Consult, and other vetted sources.
Other databases continue to include unique or at least useful alternatives to similar offerings at Google and Yahoo!. Live Maps, also known as Virtual Earth, is now just Bing Maps. It continues to offer bird's-eye imagery, a resolution partway between Google's street-level view and aerial/satellite imagery. Bing Image Search has the useful continue-scroll the Live Image Search offered. And the video search content, whether integrated into a regular web search or direct on the Video Search vertical, has embedded videos that a mouseover will start playing.
Will It Work?
While neither Google nor Yahoo! can credit their success solely on their somewhat goofy sounding names, a search engine needs a clear brand. And for the first time, Microsoft may have found one with Bing. By combining the new brand with new features, a focus on continued improvement, and a new advertising campaign, Bing may at least begin to increase market share and advertising dollars. In its first week, one internet statistics company, StatCounter (http://gs.statcounter.com/#search_engine-US-daily-20090529-20090604), found that on June 4, Bing surpassed Yahoo! traffic. However, in a more detailed analysis gathering data from several sources, Greg Sterling notes that "Bing has received a potentially significant traffic bump compared to Live Search/MSN since launch and rollout of the marketing campaign on TV and online. However Bing has (so far) not surpassed Yahoo for the number two spot" (http://searchengineland.com/did-bing-leapfrog-yahoo-not-exactly-20566).
Another analyst, Charlene Li, blogs (http://blog.altimetergroup.com/2009/05/microsoft-bings-focus-on-decisions-is-smart----but-not-a-google-killer.html) that Bing does well "especially in four key categories-shopping, travel, local, and health. ... Why these categories? Well, they are the ones that generate the most concentrated revenues from advertising, the ones where people need to make complex, multi-step decisions every day." She emphasizes Bing as a decision engine. Li continues, "Microsoft doesn't want to beat Google in terms of displacing it from [its] lofty 70% dominant share of US searches. Rather, Microsoft is out to win more users in the most lucrative categories where advertisers want to influence decision making. This is a focused strategy, and a smart one for (distant) #3 player Microsoft to pursue. ..."
Microsoft has only been running its own search engine with its own database since February 2005. Now on its third name in just a little longer than 4 years, Bing is finally beginning to offer a more compelling reason to use a Microsoft search engine.