How good is Microsoft Corp.'s Bing search engine?
Apparently, not good enough, when Google Inc. handles more than two-thirds of all Internet searches in the United States -- more than four times what Bing gets.
Yet many people who use Bing like it just fine. "I've tended to come away from Bing thinking this is as good as Google," said Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of the online trade publication Search Engine Land.
Despite Bing's high quality and its prime-time television ad campaign promoting such features as upgraded searches on the social networks Facebook and Twitter, it suffers in comparison to the overall depth of Google's database. Not only does Google offer search indexes that Bing can't match -- like the ability to search the text in millions of books -- it also connects a host of non-search services, including the Drive cloud storage service, Docs document-processing software, an online appointment calendar, free e-mail, and the Google Plus social network.
Microsoft has similar services but has not done nearly as good a job integrating them. As a result, it's easy to build an entire online life around Google, which leads to constant use of the company's search site.
That's probably why Google commands 67 percent of the US search market, according to the research firm comScore Inc., and Bing holds a mere 15 percent share. Throw in Yahoo Inc.'s websites, which use Bing, and the share rises to 29 percent, still a very weak second to Google.
Bing does have its advantages. Video searching is one area where it decisively outperforms Google. While Google shows a single column of results on each page, Bing fills the page with dozens of possibilities. There's no need to switch to the next page to see more videos. Just keep scrolling down and more results appear. In addition, the video results begin to play when you place your cursor over them -- a handy way to get a quick preview.
On the other hand, Bing has nothing like Google Books, a superb feature that indexes the contents of 20 million volumes. It doesn't provide the full texts of copyrighted books, but you can search the collection for references to any subject, read excerpts from the relevant books, and look for way to purchase or borrow the book that interests you.
Stefan Weitz, senior director of search for Microsoft, said his company once offered a similar feature but abandoned the idea. That decision has eroded Bing's status among serious online researchers.
Another disadvantage: Bing doesn't provide easy access to more advanced search features, like the ability to search pages by language or the date the page was last modified.
"I use Google a lot more than Bing, partly because I like the advanced search features more," said Mary Ellen Bates, a business information researcher in Colorado.
Google and Bing have each added social search features to deliver opinions and insights from online friends. First, you have to sign in to your social networks, such as Facebook or Google Plus, which guarantees you're no longer searching anonymously. But if you then run a search about, say, the TV series "Game of Thrones," you get results showing people who love or hate the show.
Bing has a real advantage here: a much wider population to draw from. Microsoft struck alliances with the Facebook and Twitter social networks, giving the company access to millions of relevant postings. Google has to rely on its own Google Plus social service, which could be a serious disadvantage in the long run. Google Plus has only a fraction of Facebook's 900 million users, or Twitter's 140 million.
Although it draws from fewer people, the actual social search results are generally more useful on Google. Search that TV show and you get complete messages from Google Plus friends. The same search in Bing shows Facebook friends who have "liked" the show or posted a related image on their timelines, but their actual comments are nowhere to be found.
Given these limitations, neither service excels at social searches. But Bing's alliances make it the favorite to dominate in the long run.
And Bing has long been a better choice for those planning a trip. Its travel service delivers fast and comprehensive airline flight data and helps you book a hotel room.
Google, however, spent $700 million to acquire Cambridge-based ITA Software to help develop a strong service of its own. The Google service is concentrated on airlines and offers no help with hotel booking. For that matter, neither the Bing nor Google travel services offer direct links to car rental reservations. So even though Bing does a slightly better job on travel, dedicated services like Expedia or Travelocity are superior to either one of them.
Both Bing and Google support comprehensive shopping searches. Bing has a handy feature that displays special cut-rate offers in your part of the world. Google's similar feature, Google Offers, looks a little more comprehensive. You must sign up for the service and go to a different website, but it's a small price to pay for dedicated bargain hunters.
Last month, though, Google said it will soon charge companies a fee to be listed in its shopping search. That could eliminate many merchants from the search results. Since Microsoft still lets merchants sign up for free, Bing could someday provide the most complete retail listings.
When it comes to maps, Google's famous online offerings are as impressive as ever. The company's Street View service, with its curbside photos of thousands of miles of road, delivers a wonderful you-are-there perspective.
Bing's StreetSide feature offers the same capability, but covers far fewer of the nation's streets. Then again, Bing's "bird's-eye" feature is another impressive way of viewing the world. Type an address and it gives you a razor-sharp aerial photo of that exact spot, set at a 45-degree angle for extra depth and detail. Google's still got the edge in mapping, but only just.
In all, Bing is fast and accurate, with lots of sophisticated options. If it were the first Internet search service you'd ever tried, you'd probably never quit. Unfortunately for Microsoft, Google got to us first, and after all these years it feels so much like home that most of us have no reason to leave.
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