Microsoft has ventured into the search engine fray once again, revamping its Live Search and rebranding it Bing. With its vast resources, Microsoft is positioning Bing as a “decision engine” rather than a search engine, trying to convince users that search engines should do more than just deliver a bunch of links.
Clearly Microsoft has technology and marketing clout, but does Bing change the playing field?
For the record, Bing is Microsoft’s third foray into the world of search engines. First, there was MSN search, and then came Live Search. Neither one managed to trump Yahoo! or, later on, Google. So while Microsoft may well be the 800-pound gorilla, its success is by no means certain. Then again, Microsoft has shown repeatedly that it will keep investing in key categories until it gets it right. For reference, take a look at the battle for browser supremacy, banking software and office software.
With billions invested, Microsoft is clearly hoping Bing becomes a verb just as Google has. But the site is about much more than just outdoing Google. The site itself is an attempt to reinvent the search engine experience.Users have gone from the highly organized, click-rich environment of Yahoo! to the sparse simplicity of Google in recent years. Yahoo! attempted to be everything you needed, a portal that gave you everything from search to news, music and more. In recent years, Google has added many features, all geared toward letting users customize their experiences through iGoogle and desktop widgets.
Bing appears to be navigating a path challenging both Yahoo! and Google.
At first glance, the interface is sparse like Google’s, just with a nice background image. But, in fact, the image is a map with rollovers to deliver information. This layered approach is more than just a cool touch, it represents Microsoft’s attempt to reframe search. Wherever possible, Bing wants users to satisfy their questions without leaving the site. Basic search results include a preview function for the sites returned.
The good news is that prospective visitors to our sites will have more than a sentence upon which to make their decision. The bad news, is that few sites are ready to be judged on the content Bing is pulling.
Deeper into Bing, the experience gets even more rich. Bing attempts to hold the attention of people searching the four most common categories of information: travel, health, shopping and local results.
The travel section is a full-on booking engine with results similar to Kayak.com, as well as a fare predictor. The shopping section attempts to deliver the best choice for your search, providing tools to refine your search based on the usual factors like price, but it also provides features specific to your topic. Like Yahoo!, it offers localized searches as well, which pulls information out of numerous other sites like Yelp and City Search. In many cases, this will eliminate the need for users to explore those popular sites.
Is all of this enough to dethrone Google? Probably not. Certainly not immediately. But there are some sizeable changes afoot for search engines, and Bing represents the most aggressive effort yet. It pushes new user-centric tools to the forefront, and it reasserts the role of a search portal where users spend far more than the seven seconds it takes them to remember how to spell their search term.
- Search overload. Specifically, it would appear the day of the “Results 1-10 of about 8,130,000” is nearing an end. Not that anyone ever scanned more than the first page or two of results. But now Bing attempts to cut away the chaff and even provide you tools to look at the sites before you click the link. Much of what Bing is doing for users is hidden away in the search engine, scoring and filtering results. But you can be sure that Google is not just absorbing body blows. Expect their response to be disproportional to the challenge.
- Concierge service. Forrester dubs Bing’s rich results as concierge-like – not a bad description. In this arena, the battle is between Yahoo! and Bing. Yahoo! has been all about categorizing results and adding on features to keep users on their sites longer. What it hasn’t done is aggressively try to help users make a decision or push the edge with tools to help in that process. It’s telling that Forrester reports 42% of those with Yahoo! as their homepage actually use Google when it comes time to search the Web.
- New Web 2.0 tactics. Bing’s use of content by pulling it out of the site it’s in and incorporating it in the results will lead to re-thinking how content is structured and tagged in a web site. What text should show up on the preview? Which images do we want incorporated? Do we want all the videos incorporated into search results?We’ve considered for several years how content from a web site will be embraced by users, then played forward either in an email or embedded into a page. Now we have to add search engines to that calculus. An already complex exercise is going to require an even higher level of planning.
- So much more than the web. Microsoft has been very vocal that it developed Bing to be much more than an online search tool. In the coming months, you can expect it will try to extend the brand’s footprint into emerging platforms like mobile and, when the time is right, television. Consumers will be the winners, but for those of us developing web sites, WAP sites, and marketing campaigns, we will be reminded once again what a tumultuous environment we have to accommodate.