Is Bing the next big thing?

Roll back to around 2004 and Microsoft ruled the roost on pretty much everything to do with computers. They had the most successful operating system, internet browser, office suite, development suite and so on. Bill Gates, their creator and CEO was the world’s richest man by some margin and every major government body was squeezing them over what seemed to be an unstoppable monopoly. But they needn’t have bothered.

Roll back to around 2004 and Microsoft ruled the roost on pretty much everything to do with computers. They had the most successful operating system, internet browser, office suite, development suite and so on.

Bill Gates, their creator and CEO was the world's richest man by some margin and every major government body was squeezing them over what seemed to be an unstoppable monopoly. But they needn't have bothered.

2009 is now here and everything's changed. Bill Gates jumped ship to run his charitable organisation, Windows Vista was launched and promptly crashed and burned whilst Apple steal market share with their beautifully engineered OSX and the machines they run on. Firefox has come from nowhere to steal over 20% of the browser market (Apple have grabbed some from Microsoft with Safari too). The completely free offerings from StarOffice and OpenOffice as well as Google's cloud-computing option, Documents, is giving MS a real headache - after all Microsoft Office is over £200! And what of being the biggest tech company around? Google has put paid to that.

So what is Microsoft doing about this. Well, Windows 7 is their great white hope in the Operating System world (and it's looking pretty good) whilst Bing is their long-awaited answer to the question, "How are you going to beat Google?"

But is it a good answer?

Bing is different... that's what they say. They say it is a decision engine, not a search engine - believing that it helps users make decisions rather than just search endlessly. Microsoft's research claims that only 1 in 4 searches users make deliver a satisfactory result. Though again, maybe you should question Microsoft's attention to detail as their director of Search claims in a video it's 1 in 4 that are bad. And in both cases, what is 'bad' is not defined.

Stepping away from the fluff and hype, let's focus on the four key areas that Bing claim to have focused on...

Relevance

Certainly Bing's result set is different to Google and it does try and be different from Google. You will definitely get a different set of results back from Bing - but not much. From our topical searches - 1 in 3 results directly matched Google - though the presentation was often different. Google often extrapolates your search a bit and tries to second-guess your search term a lot of the time with results being returned with additional terms thrown in and a fair amount of retitling of pages. But in the examples we found, this again just made Google a little more reliable and useful.

Secondly, bing focuses WAY too much on the URL. We searched for "Ramada London" - a term relevant to one of our clients, and found Bing ranking sites that almost don't exist - listing londonramada.com (no live site) as a top 10 destination. Its map results didn't get much better with the #1 map listing for this term not even a Ramada hotel. When it did list a Ramada Jarvis hotel, it failed to deeplink to the right part of the website (Google manages this fine).

Then what of Google's hidden treats, the converter, the calculator, the mapping tool. Sadly fails all round. Enter "convert 2kg to lb" and Google tells you "2 kilograms = 4.40924524 pounds". Bing doesn't. Ask what is "4+4"

From our trials - not so good.

Speed

Well, in spite of their rather more "dressed up" homepage - with its ever-changing background image, it still manages to load very promptly. Clearly some good optimisation going on here and certainly nothing to complain about (especially when you compare it to the increasingly bloated iGoogle page). Results return quick enough but not discernably quicker than Google & co. But, again, if you define speed to include getting to the most relevant result for you, then again disappointment does loom somewhat.

Previews

Now this is potentially quite a smart area Bing has to offer. It allows you to preview the webpages listed on the search results case so you can get a better view of the website that piques your interest without having to click it. A really great idea in our opinion and could save some click and time wastage (perhaps this is what they meant by speed?). The small thing is, there's little way you'd know this facility existed unless you played around for some time with the results. The only loose indication that you can do this comes from a line that appears next to the result when you hover over said result. But to actually see the preview, you then have to hover your pointer over the line.

Cunning! If you know it's there. And with 85% of people used to Google not doing this, then they're unlikely to use it. Great feature, hidden.

Multimedia

Clicking through here, the results are usable and comprehensive and certainly comparable to Google. However, that's it. No image base. So again Google triumphs.

Is it all bad news?

Ok, so our first look at Bing doesn't ring too many bells, but they're certainly making some inroads in the USA at least - taking over 8% of searches in June. However, it has since dropped back a bit now the hype and the US TV advertising has tailed off a bit.

Where it has shown solid and persistent growth is in Pay Per Click showing a 44% increase in share of PPC clicks since June.

Additionally, the news that Yahoo! is going to hand over its natural search to Bing in exchange for the paid search means that there's only going to be growth on the cards for Bing.

But possibly the biggest excitement with bing is in what is to come. Already richer in functionality in the USA, Microsoft has big intentions with "value added" search. Testing certain types of searches in the US version of bing delivers price comparison, hotel searches, reviews and a lot more directly into the result set. Microsoft have been on the acquisition trail and are taping these purchases into Bing to allow more end-user detail to be delivered straight into the results. This is where the "decision engine" part really begins to turn on - being able book your holiday from within the search engine, go shopping or review products. This, and more, is set to come.

Let's just hope that they make the core results work a little harder while they are at it.