Microsoft – Bing often goes Google one better
Microsoft, For the last 15 years, Microsoft’s master business plan seems to have been, “Wait until somebody else has a hit. Then copy it.”
I know that sounds mean, but come on – the list of commercial hits/Microsoft knockoffs is as long as your arm. PalmPilot/PocketPC. Netscape Navigator/Internet Explorer. Mac OS X/Windows Vista. Apple iPod/Microsoft Zune.
You’d think Microsoft would feel a little sheepish after a while. And now we have yet another me-too effort. It’s something called Bing, and it’s the latest iteration of Microsoft’s multi-year attempt to imitate Google.
The name, presumably, is supposed to evoke the sound of a winning game-show bell. But the cynics online joke that Bing is an acronym for “But It’s Not Google”. Here’s the shocker, though: in many ways, Bing is better.
That’s quite a statement, of course – almost heresy. But check it out yourself. It’s easy to compare the two, thanks to sites like bing-vsgoogle.com. Here, you’re shown search results from both Bing and Google, side by side, on a split screen.
At first, Bing is pretty much Google. Oh, there’s a big National Geographic-y photo on the home page instead of plain white, but otherwise it’s the same deal: a search box; a menu that offers to complete what you’re typing; and inconspicuous links to Images, Videos, News, Shopping and Maps.
Once you hit Enter, however, you can’t help noticing Bing’s more concerted effort to get your answers faster. To minimise the clicking, the hunting, the dead ends.
For starters, how’s this for a dream feature? Point to any search result without clicking; a pop-up balloon shows you the first few paragraphs of text on it. Without leaving the results list, you know if it’s going to be helpful. Simple and irresistible.
Here’s another example. On Google, search results usually appear as a long list of blue text links. Occasionally, a photo appears, too. Or, if there’s only one possible answer for your query (weather, stock price, sports scores, street address), you get that answer right at the top: a five-day weather forecast, a stock chart, game scores, a street map. In those cases, you don’t have to click through to anything on the search results list.
Bing does all that, too. But it also expands those “let me make sense of this for you” results – in a big, beautiful, very successful way – by introducing a new panel to the left of the search results.
For example, if you search for a celebrity’s name, that space offers an attractive table of common-sense links: News, Movies, Quotes, Biography and Images. When you search for a sports team, you see Schedule, Tickets, Stadium, History and Wallpaper. When you search for a medical condition, that table offers Causes, Remedies, Treatment, Prognosis and News.
Aren’t those almost always the answers you’re really looking for? That panel also lists Related Searches, which require one click and zero thinking. If you searched for “barbecue”, it offers Barbecue Grills, Barbecue Recipes, Barbecue Ribs, etc.
Finally, the same panel maintains your search history, to save you the trouble of reformulating your quests. (It also offers Turn Off and Clear All buttons, for the benefit of – well, you know who you are.) Yes, that left-side panel creates more clutter; Google’s appeal has always been its sparse, streamlined look. But it’s well worth the space.
Both Bing and Google offer an Image Search page, where you can find photos from the Web of anyone or anything. On Bing, however, the results page scrolls forever – you don’t have to keep clicking Next, Next, Next. More photos fit in less space, too, since all the cluttery text details (pixel size, file name, originating Web site) are hidden until you point at a thumbnail.
And you can adjust the thumbnail size. Options on the left-side panel let you limit the image results in various ways: by size, by graphic type, even “just faces” or “head & shoulders” shots. Amazing. As on Google, you can search for videos.
But on Bing, you can preview the results far more efficiently. Just point to a thumbnail (without clicking) in the search results, and the video begins to play back sample segments, seven seconds at a time, right there on the thumbnail.
The rest of Bing’s advantages are supposed to stem from four huge search categories: travel, shopping, health and local business information. These sorts of searches produce special displays that trounce Google’s eyeglazing text lists – sometimes.
When you’re shopping for a particular product – “Canon SD870”, for example – the top result is a tidy chart, summarising everything you’d want to know: a photo, price, average rating, and even a Photo Quality graph.
(Bing’s Shopping results also make it clear when you’ll get one to five per cent cash back, courtesy of Microsoft’s Cashback programme.
In essence, Microsoft passes on to you some of the bounty that it receives from 540 online advertisers, such as J&R, Hewlett-Packard, Gap and others. Paying you to use Bing for shopping feels desperate and even a little sleazy on Microsoft’s part, but it’s real money, and you may as well exploit it while it lasts.) When you search for a flight, a similar table offers the cheapest fare (“$259 JFK>LAX”) and links to other deals. An icon tells you whether prices are about to go up, down or stay the same. That detail is brought to you by Farecast.com, which Microsoft bought last year for US$115 million.
Unfortunately, these features don’t always work. You get the shopping info summary with “Canon SD870”, but not “Nikon D5000”, let alone “Palm Pre”, “TiVo HD” or “iPod Nano”.
(Microsoft points out that the summary table appears more often if you click the Shopping link before you search. But come on, who has time for that?) Similarly, it’s hard to predict when those fare-prediction icons will appear. Two weeks ago, they were showing up when you searched for “Chicago to Atlanta”, but not when you use the corresponding airport codes (“ORD to ATL”); Microsoft fixed that last week. But fare predictions aren’t available for smaller airports (Cleveland, New Orleans, Washington National).
In short, these much-vaunted Bing specialty searches feel a little flaky. Google is still way ahead on other kinds of searches, like movie showtimes: You get a complete table of nearby movies, complete with trailers, reviews and even links to IMDB.com (the Internet movie database).
Google also wins with maps and driving directions; it offers features like Street View (actual photos along your route) and the ability to drag the coloured route line to alternative roadways with your mouse (to avoid a traffic jam or take a favourite shortcut).
On the other hand, Bing wins on traffic searches (such as “traffic nyc”), where you get a colour-coded map of current traffic speeds without having to dig. It also excels with company name searches; the 800 number for customer service appears right in the results list.
But search services are constantly in flux. They’re online, so their creators can keep refining them without making you install anything. Bing will keep getting better – but so, inevitably, will Google. If Google doesn’t eventually respond by making its own results more manageable in Bingish ways, I’ll eat my hat.
Furthermore, beyond the basics, Bing is still just a baby. It lacks some of Google’s mature additional services like book searches and Google News (built-it-yourself online newspaper).
People won’t start dumping Google en masse; Google is a habit. Everyone already knows how to work it, and it may be built right into your Web browser. But if you value your time, you should give Bing a fling.
Put another way, even if Bing really did stand for “But it’s not Google”, that is not necessarily an insult
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