In June Microsoft released a new search engine named Bing, which is available in a beta version for Taiwan. Already, reports are suggesting that Google might be running scared — but does Bing really have the search engine bling to topple the titanic Google?
It strikes me as quite obvious that if Google has made all of its money from a search engine, why can’t others? Why aren’t there more competing search engines from huge companies like Microsoft, Apple or Sony? The main problem is what people perceive as your core competence these days, and only Google seems to be synonymous with search. To be fair, this reputation evolved very quickly: before Google there were AltaVista, Lycos, WebCrawler, Yahoo, Excite, Hotbot — just to name but a few — but Google completely destroyed the competition in less than two years by being able to get more relevant search results for its users using a more advanced search algorithm. Before long, word of mouth had almost everyone using Google.
However, if Bing were actually better than Google, one would assume that in the long run, after a period of competition, Bing would evolve as the dominant search site, exactly as Google did. Of course, history is littered with examples of better technologies that failed to prevail: Beta Max vs VHS, Qwerty vs Dvorak, Amiga vs PC. The fact is, now that the majority of people are Net savvy and search engines are no longer the exclusive tools of geeks, being better does not automatically mean commercial success. Things like advertising, strategic marketing and management play just as heavy a role as the product itself.
In this respect, Google employed a shrewd business plan: It didn’t spread itself too thin in its early stages by claiming to be anything other than a search engine. It only began to expand once it had literally become synonymous with search — to the extent that “google” has replaced “search” in our vocabulary.
However, whereas “google it” can now be used without further explanation, “bing it” is still meaningless. Google became involved with search in its infancy, back in the days it was almost impossible to see an ad for a search engine, so word of mouth was the best advertisement and being known as the “search guys” worked. Since then times have changed, people are hungry for more and there is room for more search engines — but people need a reason to swap. Firefox, for example, offered a better browsing experience than Internet Explorer.
Marketing is almost certainly going to play a big role in whether or not Bing succeeds. Nowadays, Google spends around US$25 million on advertising per year. Microsoft is planning to spend up to US$100 million to promote Bing, according to reports.
So what makes Bing any different? It appears to be almost identical to Google in every way, inspired by Google’s years of research into sparse user interfaces. The main visual difference is a background image that changes daily (I personally find that Bing’s background and logo make it look less professional than Google, but that doesn’t really matter if it’s more competent).
Apart from different backgrounds and logos, the most obvious distinction is the way Microsoft is marketing Bing as a “decision engine.” This strategy is obviously Bing’s unique selling point, as articulated by the catchphrase: “When it comes to decisions that matter, Bing & Decide.” But aggressive marketing and buzzwords like “decision engine” and “Bing & Decide” do not a better browser make.
On Bing’s Web site (I selected US because the site was not fully functional in Taiwan) I browsed a description of the engine explaining its merits. After reading the blurb, I was convinced that Bing was somehow optimized for certain things. One statement in particular — “Bing digs deep into airline Web sites so you don’t have to” — piqued my interest.
To compare Bing with Google, I googled “Taipei to London flights” in both search engines. The two sites offered almost identical hits. However, Google provided a slightly more convenient way to compare prices, as Bing’s results weren’t integrated with Expedia and other online ticket sellers as Google’s were. Nonetheless, the fact that Bing was able to almost match Google’s results was highly impressive, considering it has been going for less than two months — it also makes me question just where it gets its data, and what its algorithm does. Out of curiosity, I tried Yahoo, which produced results similar to both Bing’s and Google’s, as did Webcrawler and Altavista — it’s astonishing just how similar search engines actually are.
Next I tried searching for a product. Here Bing slightly outdid all its competitors, including Google, by bringing up a bar on the left-hand side that displayed categories relevant to the product, such as troubleshooting, reviews, etc. It also brought up a handy review of the product in the form of graphics. This may be more efficient than Google, especially for those who are fairly new to using search engines. After exploring Bing further, I found a pretty capable video site (www.bing.com/videos) where users can view previews of videos by running the mouse over them.
Bing is certainly a capable search engine — if it had been available in its current form five years ago, it would probably be where Google is now — but its merits may not be uncovered for a while. It’s clear that breaking into the search engine market is tough; most existing search engines produce results of comparable quality, so it would appear that reputation is key. Buzzwords like “decision engine” and novel ways to search might not help. Take, for instance, the launch of a revolutionary new “computational knowledge engine” called Wolfram Alpha released within the last few months but still completely unheard of. Likewise, “Google Squared,” an application launched this summer that shows search results in spreadsheet form, remains largely unknown.
Over the coming months, I hope to see more from Bing. The capacity to predict prices, allowing users to wait for cheaper airline tickets, for example, would really set it apart from the rest. But for now, I will be alternating between Google and Bing until I decide which, if either, is better.
Gareth Murfin is a freelance applications developer and technology consultant: www.garethmurfin.co.uk
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