The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 35.0°F | Mostly Cloudy
Screenshot from www.bing.com
Bing’s image intensive home page.
Article Tools

And maybe it never will.

I’ll admit it, I’m something of a Google loyalist. I nabbed a Gmail invite when it was still exclusive back in 2004 (Wow! One gigabyte of space!). I’ve subscribed to Google’s official blog on Google Reader. I plan out my class schedule on Google Calendar. Google Desktop has become my de facto application launcher. You get the picture (but if not, try Google Images).

Imagine, then, my surprise at reading some of the initial reviews of Microsoft’s new “decision” engine, Bing. “It’s pretty smart,” says Laptop Magazine. “You should use Bing,” commanded CNET. And from TechCrunch, “Apparently Bing is something of a hit.” Did the guys in Redmond finally get search right?

The tech community and search engine users need to see Bing for what it is — a rebranding. And that in itself is not a bad thing. Relaunching Microsoft Live Search as a “decision engine,” prettying up the user interface, and implementing a few search enhancements might very well grab Bing some much-needed market share (Microsoft held a meager 8.2 percent compared to Google’s 64 percent in April). But that market share will not, and should not, be taken from Google.

So what exactly is new about Bing? First, it looks and feels different than Live Search. Unfortunately, it looks and feels too complicated and too busy. Every user is greeted at the Bing homepage (http://www.bing.com/) with a new picture of rustic European buildings or sweeping landscapes in Asia. And while the photos are nice, they’re totally irrelevant to search. Plus, they add precious milliseconds to page load times — it sounds trivial, but you don’t even realize how much you appreciate that Google is as fast as it is. This photograph remains as a faded background image at the top of the page as you continue to search (although, in Bing’s defense, Microsoft told me that richer page elements load asynchronously with search functions – you do not need to wait for anything extraneous to load to begin searching).

So-so search

And what about search itself? While better than Live Search, Bing rarely trumps Google in search quality. Generally, the top ten results are equally relevant. For example, a search for “the tech mit” yielded similar results on Google and Bing, but Google gave it that extra-special touch by providing direct links to various parts of our website directly from the search result. Bing touts an identical feature as one of its improvements over Live, though Google’s been doing it for has offered for years.

Bing also suggests related searches on the left sidebar of every search page, whereas Google places them at the bottom or top of pages, and only when it deems them relevant enough. Microsoft should reconsider posting related searches next to every results page — it slows down load times, distracts the user, and clutters the page. Indeed, research shows that users often go back to refine their searches, but these refinements are not what the search engine might guess. I personally find Google’s suggestions to be superior to Bing’s (for my sample search, Bing suggested “MIT University,” “MIT College,” “MIT technical institute,” and “Harvard Crimson,” among others). And if you really want related searches all the time on Google, use the “Preferences” link.

The “decision” aspects of Bing seem to work fine, but offer little incentive to switch from Google. Microsoft claims Bing will help you make choices regarding travel, health, movies, shopping, and the like. And again, Bing does this better than Live Search. But better than Google? That’s debatable. I find Google’s quick, clean, no-nonsense approach to decision-making very appropriate. Searching for “movies 02139” gives me similar results in both engines about movies playing in the Cambridge area, but clicking on a movie title in Google brings me to a nice, clean page where I can sort by movie, date, or theater. Bing sends me over to MSN Movies. Yuck.

Microsoft is really excited about travel-related searches on Bing, thanks to integration with their Farecast travel engine (now rebranded Bing Travel). And indeed, a search for “new york to los angeles” directs me to find ticket prices from both Google and Bing, but Google just tosses me to Expedia. Bing has a much more sophisticated breakdown of travel data and can even let me find out when ticket prices seasonally drop for a particular flight. Kudos to Microsoft; they got this one right. But in regards to shopping and local searches, there’s no compelling reason to switch from Google. Both engines can sort shopping or local results by ratings (in Bing’s defense, their algorithm scours the web for reviews, whereas Google relies on user-generated ratings), and both are relatively good at finding you the best deals on the web.

However, there is something to be said for currency. Searching Bing’s and Google’s shopping searches for the new iPhone challenger, the Palm Pre, gave drastically different results. Google Product Search comes up with what you might expect, that is, a list of vendors currently selling the Pre, sortable by price, seller rating, store, etc. Bing “helps” me make my “decision” by offering up pages of listings for tacky “pre-lit palm trees” and gloves with “pre-curved fingers, leather palms.” Even sorting by category and drilling down to “cell phones” only got me a single result for an LCD screen protector for the Palm Treo 800. I know, Microsoft, the Palm Pre has a funny name. It’s new. Bing got confused. But that’s not an excuse. These are the kinds of things people are making decisions about every day, and they need a search engine they can rely on.

Why so complicated?

Microsoft says the rate at which Bing refreshes its indexes varies from source to source. It also employs a system called “RankNet” to decide how important new content is, like on blogs or news sites. To make shopping search competitive with Google, Microsoft needs to ensure that this particular index is up-to-date. Only once that is taken care of should they worry about the bells and whistles.

When it comes to local searches, I find Google’s map interface to be much faster and easier to work with (not to say Bing Maps has anything wrong with it — this is largely a matter of preference). But I still fail to understand why many reviewers seem to think Bing’s ability to break down results by categories like cuisine type, rating, and geographic location is something new. Google Maps has sported this ability for quite some time, and, unlike Bing, it’s smart.

Bing wants me to try to sort my “best sushi in New York City” results by things like “Burger” or “Deli.” Google doesn’t bother suggesting something like that and suggests I might sort cuisine type by “American, Asian, Japanese, Sushi.” Somewhat redundant, but at least it makes sense.

Though, unlike Google, Bing also lets me break down local results, like restaurants, by atmosphere, payments accepted, and parking. Nice innovations, but I’ve found these categories to not be less than accurate when investigating restaurants around my home town. Both search engines should work on refining specific breakdowns like these.

Even Microsoft will admit Bing’s goal is not to defeat Google, which is smart. However, Microsoft has made a serious misstep if it thinks Bing can even win converts from Google — because despite fashioning itself a “decision engine,” Bing doesn’t bring anything enticing to the table.

Sure, some of the innovations are snazzy, but a laundry list of “features” isn’t what will draw users away from the Big G. Users do not want to go through extra clicks to get the search engine to know what they’re looking for — they’d like the search engine to know what they want right off the bat.

Ideally, a search engine is one box you type anything into and it gives the answer, product, movie, restaurant, image, video, or whatever else it is that you’re looking for. No rifling through category menus or related searches. So amidst all of Bing’s helpful ways to help you make decisions, it might end up slowing you down and complicating the process.

The final word: Bing isn’t bad. But it does not have what it takes to draw consumers from Google. For the sake of simplicity and potentially better results, users should stick with Google. However, Bing does bring in a refreshing competitive element to the search wars, and many of its innovations are excellent in theory, if not implemented perfectly in practice. I encourage users to take Bing for a test drive to see what the buzz is about and to discover other search elements I did not cover.

You can go to http://www.bing.com ­— or just Google “bing.”