When Steve Ballmer unveiled Microsoft's Bing search service  last week, he said it was due June 3. But Bing has already gone live. It's a beta test version, so we took it for a test drive. Is it a threat to Google?
The first thing you notice about Bing is it's much prettier than Google--for me its front splash page has an image of the Greek island of Santorini. Since I live in Portugal, the engine detects that and offers me the chance to search in English or Portuguese only, or both. There's also the usual split between words and image based searches. The promising-sounding Extras tab just brings up a preferences setting for now.
To test out Bing's timeliness, I popped in "AF447" as a search term--it's live news, an Air France flight that's reportedly disappeared  from radar off Brazil. Bing's also supposed to show live flight data, so that should have been interesting too. Sadly all it returned were search results in German, Dutch and Chinese, some vaguely connected to flight AF447, but no live flight info. "Flight AF447" worked better, with the top two hits being a site that would let me buy seats--but no news about it. A simple Google for "AF447," however, turns up flightstats.com so I can track the aircraft live, and the second hit links to the breaking CNN story.
"Fast Company" as a search term faired much better: the top link on Bing is this Web site, the second is our Fast Company 50 feature for this year. Ditching the space changed things, with the second link now our Twitter feed --which reveals how literally Bing seems to take the search parameters, since URLs don't allows spaces. Google behaves more predictably--with or without the space it gives pretty much the same top hits, but no link to our Twitter feed.
Next up, "Jay Leno". Bing returns a panel of six images of Jay at the top of the page, with an option to check out more images, news, videos or a biography. The search results have the Wikipedia page for him, then a link to NBC for the Tonight Show, and his IMDB page. Google didn't give an image preview, but had a fairly similar search result.
But when you look at the image search function, Bing wins hands down. The page splits into the image results, and a control panel to refine the responses by size, layout and color. You can also switch between photograph and illustration options--Bing seems to be able to detect the difference, and does indeed provide more illustrations in that list. Cleverer still, there's an option to search for faces, heads and shoulder and "other" shots. Bing goes and thinks, running an image processing algorithm. Hovering over any image gives a preview zoom, the site URL, the image size and the option to search for similar images. Clicking on an image brings up the source page inside Bing, with all the other thumbnails now in the sidebar. It's a much better UI for imagery than Google.
To test the claim that Bing tries to prioritize customer service contacts, I tried "Canon USA," and true enough, the phone number showed up as hit number 10. Google doesn't return that info even in the first 50 results. But Bing's live stock price feature isn't working yet, and hovering over a link doesn't give you a preview of the page, as Ballmer said it would. Binging for "Seattle" also didn't bring up an image preview panel, nor a map. The most obvious omission is that Bing's clever Decision Engine, to help you refine your searches, doesn't seem to be fully implemented yet.
It is still in Beta, so full functionality will probably turn up at some point. And Bing does seem powerful--I'll definitely be using it for image searches from now on. We'll have to wait for it to be fully functional to really tell, of course, but it looks like Microsoft has a potent Google competitor on its hands.
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