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Is Bing a true Google challenger?

This article appears in the issue July/August 2009, [Vol 18, Issue 7]

What do you do when you release a new public Web search engine? You give it a short name, "Bing," and hope it becomes a verb; you invest $100m in marketing; you call it a "decision engine," rather than a search engine; and you offer Windows Mobile users a free download of catchy BingTones. Because nothing spells innovation better than a phone near you serenading its virtues.

Oh, and of course you overhaul the underlying technology, add in your recently acquired Powerset technology, mix this with social search, wrap it up in stunning imagery and offer a new API.

And what does all of this get Microsoft? Well, mostly discussions of whether or not it is better than Google (the overall verdict: slightly, in some ways) and whether or not it’s good enough to snap at the heels of Google’s market share (the general consensus: not really). To sum it up: If you were to be stranded on a desert island with a laptop, would you survive with Bing? Sure. But would you pick it if you were allowed to take only one search engine with you?

Barring the Robinson Crusoe scenario, however, the two most interesting things about Bing are rather inconspicuous. First off, there’s a new API, with comparatively free Terms of Use. It offers JSON, SOAP and XML results; you can differentiate result types ("SourceTypes" such as Web, image, video); you’re allowed to rearrange and mix the result sets and, best of all, there’s no quota on usage. If you want to build your own Web search engine, integrate one in your Web site or intranet or federate results from the Web at large with your own data, Bing has an edge over both the Google and Yahoo APIs.

The second aspect is paradoxical: Bing is more of a quiet evolution than a loud revolution, which makes it an excellent analogy to use. There are a lot of innovations, but individually, none of them are really spectacular: There are categorizations and refinements of search results and suggestions of related searches, and thumbnails in an image search are all on one endlessly scrolling page.

And the search page certainly is pretty. But it’s not enough to "wow" us all into giving up our Google habit.

But if you’re working on an enterprise search project, you can talk about Bing, and you’ll actually be able to use it as an example people recognize. With Bing, Microsoft has tried to do many of the things you’d want to do in a really ambitious enterprise search project. It’ll make for a credible contrast to the bland expectations Google has instilled in most users.

So while I don’t see Bing as the definitive choice of a castaway on a desert island, I do think it’ll show up in quite a few boardroom presentations, either as an ingredient or an example. And if you find yourself there, remember one thing: Turn off your BingTones before you go in. 


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