Monday, June 08, 2009

Bing, Another Verb, Takes On Google

Taking on Google on its own turf is something only a foolhardy company would do. But that’s what Microsoft has done with Bing (, its latest attempt to compete with Google in the search arena. Live Search and other past attempts had badly failed but while “agility” is not normally associated with Microsoft, “persistence” is.

And that persistence seems to have paid off. Bing is a more user-friendly search engine and leaves Google in the dust in the visual department. A new image everyday invites you to explore the world in five broad categories - Images, Videos, Shopping, News, Maps and Travel. Having become used to the austere look-and-feel of Google for so long, Microsoft’s search screen may take a while to adjust to but it seems to draw users in once they make that tentative first click.

Of course, style can go only so far. Ultimately, it’s substance that wins. Here too, Microsoft shines. I typed in Thoreau. When my cursor hovered on the right edge of a link, it displayed a summary of that Web page. The first entry on the Bard of Walden was from Wikipedia. I did not need to go to Wikipedia immediately since “Hover” gave me a synopsis. The advantage is obvious. Now I can filter out spurious results, the bane of all search engines, by scanning the summary.

Since I am planning to travel in a few weeks, I searched for Malaria videos and was presented with an array of thumbnail still pictures. Simply by placing the cursor on one of these pictures started the associated video. This removes the annoyance of having to click “play” or go to a new page. When I moved the cursor to a different image, the previous one stopped and the new one began. Again, a built-in, intuitive filtering process that makes the search experience a pleasant and productive one.

Similar features abound. I am sufficiently impressed by the service to at least alternate between Google and Microsoft for now. Google has ignored all attempts by Microsoft to usurp its territory, and for good reason, since all such attempts had led to more embarrassment for Steve Ballmer. But now Google has to respond. And therein lies the dilemma. If Google introduces same or similar features in its search interface, the company will come across as a follower rather than a leader, a position it is unaccustomed to. There are many products that Google has launched over the years that fizzled. (Who uses its social networking service other than diehard loyalists?) But search is different. If Microsoft begins to gain mindshare through Bing and Google’s dominance dissipates, shock waves will pass through the technological landscape. In the end, though, more competition in search can only be a boon for innovation and user experience.

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