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.

Bing.com Screenshot.

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.

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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.

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.

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.