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Bing Beta Review, Part 1, The Making of a Decision Engine

Last week, Microsoft went public with its Live Search replacement, Bing, in a big way: The service is now replacing Live Search on the web, on the mobile web, and in the search boxes in all kinds of browsers. Given the relatively low usage share that Microsoft's search service has garnered over the years, it's sort of surprising--in a good way--to see how much effort that the software giant is putting behind Bing, from both a technological and marketing standpoint. But now that I've used the service pretty heavily for about three weeks, I feel comfortable in stating that Microsoft might just be on to something here.

No, Bing isn't going to magically replace Google's dominant search engine anytime soon (though there is evidence that the surprisingly popular new service has at least temporarily "leapfrogged" Yahoo! Search from a usage perspective). Refreshingly Microsoft is upfront and realistic about its goals with Bing and how it can compete against an entrenched and dominant foe. In a briefing last month, Microsoft Live Search Director Stefan Weitz told me that his company understands that no one is actively seeking a new search engine. Instead, Bing is Microsoft's attempt to capitalize on an emerging need and is thus, in many ways, a different type of product.

"We think of Bing as a decision engine instead of a search engine," Weitz told me. "If you look at the tools we've created and the technologies we've acquired, they all have one thing in common: They help you make informed decisions. For general searches, you can use Google or whatever. But if you want to make a decision with more confidence--related to travel, health, shopping, and some other key scenarios--try us first. Because we can actually save you time and money."

Put simply, Bing is all about specific vertical searches. Any search engine can tell you what the temperature is right now in Boston, or who the 23rd president of the United States was. (Benjamin Harrison, if you're curious.) What Bing excels at--and it really does--are more complex searches where you're researching something with the notion of making a decision. Maybe you need to book a trip to Seattle, or figure out which is the best digital SLR camera. These are the types of searches where Bing really does rise above the junk served up by traditional search engines (like Google).

Bing Beta
Microsoft Bing is much more warm and welcome than Google.

From what I can see, however, Bing has one serious problem. (And it has nothing to do with its name, which love it or leave it, will soon just be one of many quirky technology product names we think nothing of.) That is, people have a certain inertia of habit. And today, Google is as compatible with search as Kleenex is with tissue. Getting them to switch from Google is hard enough. But getting them to search from Google only for very specific things is, in my mind, potentially impossible.

With that in mind, I've been using Bing as my primary search engine since I was given access to the private beta service last month. And while I have very occasionally gone back to Google for specific items--images, particularly--the truth is that Live Search was already a viable Google competitor, even before the Bing improvements. And Bing is even better, so for those that are able to willing to make the switch, you may never look back. Bing may sound silly, but it's the real deal.

Why a decision engine?

Calling Bing a decision engine may seem like a convenient way to recast a non-winning argument. But Microsoft makes a compelling case for its strategy of side-stepping the whole search engine mess and approach this market with a different tactic. According to its own research, fully 50 percent of all search queries online go unanswered, 50 percent need to be further refined, and 35 percent of users are dissatisfied with current search engines. 72 percent of users feel that search results are unorganized, and anyone that does use Google can attest to the silliness of today's search results, with their millions of hits and indecipherable lists mixing useful and non-useful sites to visit. 50 percent of searches are, in fact, repeats of previous searches.

This data all suggests that search engine makers have a lot of work to do, but of course Google and its competitors do refine their products almost continually, one of the benefits of web-based products. Had Microsoft continued down this path, it would have eventually arrived at a search engine that was more or less as good as anything else on the market, but one that was used by fewer and fewer people each month. Instead, Microsoft chose a different approach, using its research as a guide. It also found that 66 percent of people using search engines were doing so to make complex decisions, ones that often required continual refining of search queries. And over 46 percent of these people's time was being spent on search sessions lasting 30 minutes or more.

These types of search sessions are not well served by the list-based search results you currently get with traditional search engines. Thus, Bing was born, with the notion that Microsoft could provide a better experience for those people making more complex searches--i.e., looking for help with decisions--all while providing a traditional search engine experience that was comparable to the competition. The goal, apparently, is to hook users with one of the vertical searches (decisions) that Bing does so much better than Google and the others. And if they have that good experience maybe they'll just stick with Bing for everything else as well.

In this review, I'm not going to focus too much on the traditional search engine stuff. The reason is simple: Bing is comparable to Google and Yahoo! here, and you won't find much of an advantage with traditional searches regardless of which service you use. (In truth, each handles some things a little differently, and you may prefer the presentation or relevancy of certain search engines over others. I find it hard to draw any major distinctions.) Instead, I will focus on those aspects of Bing that really do set it apart from the competition, and you can decide whether these advances are useful enough for you to get you to switch. But I do implore you, regardless, to try Bing. As noted previously, Microsoft really does seem to be on to something here and it's a high quality service.

Mile-high view: Decision engine vs. search engine

Semantics quibbling aside, what does Microsoft's description of Bing as a decision engine really mean to you as a user? As it turns out, it's not just marketing fluff. The decision engine term applies itself to many aspects of the Bing experience, as you'll see. But in a very general sense, the primary thing you'll notice with Bing is that provides direct access to information from within the search results so you won't need to click on links to find answers.

Yes, Google does this as well, but only in very limited cases. For example, if you are logged into either site and search for "weather" (or search for weather and then your ZIP code or whatever), both Bing and Google provide a multi-day weather forecast at the top of the search results. This means you don't need to click into a third party site to find the weather; you're provided with the answer immediately. But Bing does it more often. Remember that 23rd president query I mentioned earlier? While you can ascertain the answer to the question using either Bing or Google without leaving the search results page, Bing provides the answer in a non-link result, in plain text, right at the top of the results list.

Bing Beta
Weather results on both Bing and Google.

Bing also provided much more organized search results than Google, and this speaks to the silliness of Google's math complex, where every query is accompanied by the number of results ("about 7,880,000 for who was the 23rd president"). Yes, Bing tells you how many results it garners too, but unlike with Google, Bing's results aren't spewed out in some mathematically calculated plain list. Instead, Bing uses category segregation to present a much more intelligent presentation of results.

Let's check out some examples. Say you want to find out about a favorite band, in this case Def Leppard, and perhaps buy tickets to a local concert this summer. Searching for the term on Google provides you with the traditional and Spartan Google results list, with nary a break in the sea of text. Have fun navigating through the 4.7 million results.

Bing Beta
Google search results for "Def Leppard".

On Bing, the experience is warmer and friendlier. First, a dynamically created left "rail" (or categories list( provides a simple way to filter the search results. This list is context specific and is thus different for each search. In the case of Def Leppard, you're given Images, Songs, Lyrics, Tickets, Merchandise, Albums, and Videos. There is also a list of related searches in the left rail, which is based on what other people are searching for.

Bing Beta
Bing search results for "Def Leppard".

But it's not just about filtering. Even the search results list is more attractive and usable than that offered by Google. It, too, is segregated into categories, and only the top handful of each is presented on the main results page, since those results will most likely meet the needs of most people. As you move down the page, the sections of results you see map directly to the same categories you get in the left rail (Images, Songs, Lyrics, Tickets, Merchandise, Albums, and Videos in this case.) And if you want to dig deeper, just click the See more results link that appears at the end of each section.

Bing Beta
Bing's search results are segregated for a cleaner, more logical presentation.

In another nicety not offered on Google, Bing offers an interesting flyout window that appears when you mouse over individual results. This lets you preview a page before navigating away from the search results page, another way in which this service helps prevents mindless clicking around.

Bing Beta
A Bing search result flyout.

Other searches net similar experiences. Looking at "Boston Celtics," Bing provides categories like Schedule, Rumors, Roster, Cheerleaders, Tickets, Images, and Videos. "New Beetle" gets Videos, Accessories, Parts, Used, Sale, Dealers, and Images. "Zune 120" provides Troubleshooting, Drivers, Reviews, Accessories, Case, Shopping, and Video. In each case, Bing provides a more logical and useful search experience. And we haven't even gotten to the complex decisions yet.

And that, of course, is the final aspect of a decision engine that really sets it apart from a traditional search engine. It must be able to handle something more complex than a simple search. It must be able to help you make decisions. We'll take a look at that next.

Coming soon: Part 2...

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