Spring is the season for subpar new search engines. First we saw the launch of Wolfram Alpha, a much-hyped project that tried to distinguish itself from Google by claiming that it was not actually a search engine but rather a "knowledge engine." Perhaps that's why it couldn't tell me anything I wanted to know. But Wolfram was soon forgotten as techies went ape over Topsy, a new engine that ranks its results according to what people are linking to on Twitter. An interesting idea—but, again, it proved disappointing. When I searched for "Prop 8" just after the California Supreme Court upheld the ban on gay marriage, Topsy sent me to, among other silly things, a year-old Los Angeles Times story that many Twitterers mistook for news that the ban had been overturned.
Such failed attempts to out-Google Google only add to its mystique. So many wannabe Google slayers have come and gone over the years that it's now something of a curse to say out loud that your new search engine wants to beat Google. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, doesn't seem to believe in the curse. Ballmer makes plain his desire to crush Google—in interviews, he sometimes can't bring himself to even say his rival's name, referring to Google only as "the market leader." On Monday, Ballmer lobbed his latest volley at the leader. It's called Bing—and it's actually pretty good. Microsoft's long-awaited would-be Google killer is everything you'd want in a search engine. In other words, it's just like Google: It delivers fast, relevant results, organized in a clean, thoughtful way.
Bing has a few bells and whistles to make it stand out from Google, yet not so many that new users will find it hard to understand. Indeed, it's telling that Microsoft seems less focused on distinguishing its product from Google's than in thinking up strategies to get people to switch. For instance, the company integrated its rewards program into Bing; now you can get cash back when you buy products that you search for. Microsoft also picked the site's name specifically to encourage usage as a verb: In a letter to users, the Bing team offers, "We sincerely hope that the next time you need to make an important decision, you'll Bing and decide." I know that sounds lame. But so did "I Googled him" once—until everyone began Googling everyone else, at which point it seemed normal.
This suggests Microsoft's plan of attack; it'll fight Google not just by making a great search engine but also by making sure that you keep hearing about its great search engine. It plans to spend as much as $100 million to advertise Bing, and probably much more on improvements to the site. Can it work? Of course it can. Microsoft is rich, persistent, and, under Ballmer, maniacally focused on winning the search wars. Sure, Google has two-thirds of the market, and the thought that any rival could make a dent in that position seems crazy. But everyone—even Google—admits that the search business is in its infancy and that anything could change over the next few years. When you use Bing—I'm sorry, when you Bing—the idea that Google could be beaten doesn't seem so crazy after all.
That's not to say Bing is a better search engine. It's not; I peppered it with many different kinds of queries, and—like other people who've tested it out—I found it to be just as good as Google. Indeed, the results were often indistinguishable. When I Binged and Googled Slate's patented three-query test for new search engines—"Obama," "Viagra," and my own name—I got similar results on each site.