Beware Google: Microsoft's new search engine, Bing, isn't half-bad.

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June 2 2009 5:31 PM

About a Bing

Beware Google: Microsoft's new search engine isn't half-bad.

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Often, the most-notable difference between Bing and Google searches was not in the links displayed but in how they were laid out on the page. In its ads, Microsoft plans to argue that today's search engines don't work very well. According to its data, we often don't find the right answer on our first try—we search for a term, then we keep tweaking our search query until we get the link we want. Bing tries to address this by returning links not just to your initial query but also to related searches. When you search for "Obama," for example, Bing also shows you results for, among other searches, "Obama biography," "Obama issues," and "Obama facts." In all, Bing gives you 20 results rather than Google's 10. Microsoft argues that this increases the odds that you'll find something you like on the first page.

It's hard to say whether one approach is better than another. I prefer Google's less-busy results page over Bing's—but that's probably just because I'm used to it. Most people don't put much thought into what search engine to use; surveys show that we choose Google not just because it returns the right results but also because it's a habit. But our habits aren't especially fixed; we're perfectly happy to flit around between different engines. According to Nielsen, about one-third of Web searchers use three or more different search engines per month. Moreover, the people most willing to switch between search engines are those classified as "heavy searchers"—the 20 percent of American Web users who account for 80 percent of all search queries. Microsoft seems intent on going after these power users. It even built a plug-in for Firefox—open-source Firefox!—that allows for quick Bing searches.

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Ballmer has argued that Microsoft is in the same position in the search business as it was in the PC business in the early 1990s. The earliest versions of Windows didn't work very well, and it was only because Microsoft kept improving the product that it eventually became dominant. "If you stop and think about it, Windows 95 came 12 years after we started working on Windows," Ballmer told the New York Times. "We've been working on search five years. I'm not saying it should necessarily take 12 years, but in a sense what we're trying to do is accelerate the pace, and see if we can't get there."

Henry Blodget has done a good job poking holes in this analogy. He points out that back when it was pushing Windows, Microsoft was working from a position of strength; it was already the dominant maker of PC operating systems, so it didn't take much to convince computer manufacturers to install successive versions of Windows. Microsoft occupies a very different place in the search business—it's an underdog, and it faces a relentlessly talented rival that isn't going to make many mistakes.

That may be so. But Ballmer still isn't going to quit. He told the Times that Bing represents the first step of something grand for the company: "It's important—like something that we really care about, we really think about, we're going to stay persistent with, we're going to invest in." That's good news. If the search market is indeed in its infancy, it'll need a rivalry to grow. And that's the best reason to use Bing—if you switch, Google's going to do some awesome things to try to win you back.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.