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Is Bing the Next Big Search-Engine Thing?

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Maybe it's the effectiveness of the Macintosh ads painting Microsoft as hopelessly square. Maybe it's landmark antitrust lawsuits a few years ago that seemed to cast Microsoft as the evil empire.

Whatever the reason, for me, it's always a little painful to watch Microsoft try to break into a market dominated by "the cool kids." So with last week's unveiling of Bing -- Microsoft's search-engine answer to Google -- it was easy to imagine the skeptical faces of tech journalists, smirking while poised to spill some unflattering virtual ink.

But something surprising happened: Last week, when tech-savvy journalists (unlike myself) were given a sneak peak, their response was one of pleasant surprise.

"I planned to write this story with the headline, 'Bing isn't Better,' but the new engine won me over," confessed CNet editor Rafe Needleman in an article titled "Microsoft Bing: Much Better Than Expected."

"Microsoft Bing has (Apple co-founder) Steve Wozniak Impressed!" exclaimed an incredulous TechWhack News.

Bing was first made available to a select few reviewers last week, but was launched this week for the general public. Not all the reviews have been raves, and my own layman's take on the search engine is mixed.

But first, a rundown of the product.

In a nutshell, Microsoft wants Bing to be used as a noun, a verb and a brand name -- just like we've come to use Google. In doing so, it attempts to be every bit the search engine that Google is, and then some. The "then some," in this case, is what the company refers to as a "decision engine."

This means Bing, which replaces the drably-named Live Search, is attempting to help people to not only find what is out there, but also make decisions about which restaurants to select, which hotels to reserve, which plane tickets to purchase, and so on.

In general, the consensus among the experts seems to be that while Bing probably won't replace Google as the dominant search engine anytime soon, it's a solid product, and the competition is a healthy thing.

"Google is a wonderful tool, but it's like getting all your news from CNN, your coffee only from Starbucks or your operating systems only from Microsoft," writes Seattle Times columnist Brier Dudley.

By my reading, the product's standout feature is the so-called decision engine, which would come in handy when searching for, say, a hotel room.

On Google, such a search turns up a list of hotels that lead the user's mouse directly to each hotel's Web site -- hardly an unbiased source of information. By contrast, Bing shepherds users to an intermediate page that provides a kind of at-a-glance overview, complete with easy-to-read price summaries, amenities and bar graphs depicting the general favorability ratings among users.

This helpful meta-review is similar in some ways to the concept behind the consolidation and quantification of movie critiques made famous by Metacritic.com.

Google does have a "user review" page, but this is just a collection of all the reviews ever written, without the dashboard overview that affords a user-friendly snapshot of any given hotel's overall popularity.

Some heavy hitters in the media-tech world have given Bing high marks for its approach to travel searches.

"Bing's travel search is a clear winner that sets it far ahead of Yahoo and Google," raves Wired.com.

Specifically, Bing lets users research prices for different airlines without having to toggle back and forth between different Web sites. Even more impressive, it also includes a price predictor estimating the best time to purchase a plane ticket -- a smart incorporation of technology from Farecast, a service that Microsoft acquired last April.

Bing also seems to beat Google on restaurant searches.

Take French restaurants. Bing not only calls up the names of the establishments in a given metropolitan area, but also allows users to sort them according to price, parking, reservations or atmosphere.

Wired lauded this particular feature as well, calling it "cool."

On the local restaurant search, though, I have a minor complaint. When searching for local restaurants in Santa Barbara -- where HispanicBusiness.com is headquartered -- I noticed that Bing fails to clearly separate the sponsored listings at the top of the results page from the rest of the listing below.

I typed "Santa Barbara restaurant" into the search engine, and then clicked the "local" link in the upper-left-hand portion of the screen. This produced a curious listing in the top spot: "Perris Valley Skydiving."

Last time I checked, Perris is near Los Angeles, which is 90 miles away from Santa Barbara. And although the establishment does appear to have a sports bar and grill, that doesn't seem to be the main thrust of the business. (I would think that food and skydiving is a risky combination, but what do I know?)

Granted, this was one of the sponsored listings, meaning "Perris Valley Skydiving" apparently shelled out money for the prominent placement. The regular listings, located below "Perris Valley Skydiving" and a couple other sponsored listings, all seemed sensible. But I'd have been less confused had the sponsored links been placed inside a box with a different color.

In any case, for all the positive press on Bing, some experts doubt there's a burning need for a new search engine.

"If you're expecting Bing to be a Google-killer, reset your expectations," said Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land. "Google's one-stop shopping for many types of search. Or a Swiss Army knife that does many different things. It might not be the perfect tool for a particular task, but it's often good enough to get the job done--and so it keeps getting used."

And while Wired's review -- titled "Bing, But No Boom" -- is mostly positive, it did give Bing a few dings.

On design, Wired faulted Bing for not being intuitive. Some of its best features -- such as the "local" and "my listings" links allowing a user to drill deeper when searching for things such as restaurants -- are not easy to find.

"Unfortunately, the interface is confusing and you could easily miss this
feature if you didn't know to look for it."

Wired also lamented how Bing's local search failed to turn up some popular local fixtures.

At the end of the day, Bing has the critics pleasantly surprised, but not blown away. The product has officially crashed the party, and the fact that nobody is laughing it out the door is already a success. And let's face it: the true test has little to do with the opinion of the know-it-alls anyway. The true test will involve seeing how the product plays with the know-nothings -- you know, the millions of us for whom the word "Google" is the go-to research tool for everything from the trivial to the obvious.

Nobody ever says, "Why don't you Yahoo it." Maybe Bing will be different. Let's try it on for size: "Why don't you Google or Bing it?"

Actually, "Bing me," has a nice ring to it, though it may not be an accurate description of the process. Would multiple searches be a "Bing binge?" Should one shout "Bada Bing!" when victorious in finding something?

Undoubtedly, the search engine's amount and manner of usage will evolve the surrounding vernacular. ("Vernacular" -- per Bing -- "the common spoken language of a people, as distinct from formal written or literary language.")


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