If Google is the Alpha dog of search, Bing is often described as the young pup yapping at its heels. But look closely and you’ll see that Bing, in some ways, is actually leap-frogging Google and leading the race in redefining what search is about. (Okay, we're done with the animal metaphors, swear.) The new features Bing unveiled in San Francisco yesterday move even further in that direction and may help Microsoft in its quest to capture a larger share of the search market.
Among the features announced: When you search for a restaurant, you can call up a landing-type page in Bing that aggregates everything you’d want to know about that particular establishment: reviews, photos, maps, hours, even things to do nearby, a la Citysearch. All of this information is culled from other sites and organized on a single, easy-to-use page within the search engine. If you want to read a complete review, you can click through to the site it came from, but if you simply want to skim, you have the key information right there within Bing. And if you decide that’s the joint for you, functionality from OpenTable is embedded on the page, allowing you to make a reservation without ever leaving the search engine.
The idea behind features like this, say Bing executives, is that search is no longer simply about looking for information. It’s about getting things done: Booking reservations, buying plane tickets, researching consumer products. And Microsoft is trying to help its users get those things done as quickly as possible. It’s trying, simply put, to make search results less like a list of links and more like an app.
“We want to make search that next-generation organizing layer that helps you with task completion,” senior vice president for research and development of online services, Satya Nadella told Fast Company.
Other features announced yesterday that reflect this “app-ification” of search include similar landing-type pages for entertainment options. If a movie's still in theaters, for example, you can order tickets right from Bing. For movies on DVD, Bing will tell you whether Netflix or iTunes has the title available and let you click on through to start watching immediately. Functionality from Bing partner FanSnap lets you compare ticket prices to sporting events from over 50 sites, as well as identify the location of your seat on a seating chart, and even see what the view will look like from there. And destination pages for certain cities serve up pictures and videos, list attractions and upcoming events, and even let you search for flights right from Bing.
The “app-ification” also includes smaller elements that Bing calls “Answers,” which are embedded within what otherwise looks like a conventional page of results. If you search for “Golden Globes,” for example, at the top of the results page there’s a condensed section that lets you know when the Globes will take place and gives you quick links to previous winners, highlights, and red carpet fashions. These aren’t necessarily the most “relevant” links, as Google might serve up. It’s more of an editorial touch, aggregating what the system thinks you might actually like to know about the topic. Bing partner group program manager Derrick Connell said Bing released between 50 to 60 of these “Answers” elements as part of yesterday’s announcement.
Bing’s approach is a far cry from the search paradigm pioneered by Google. In the deep dark ages of the Internet, like, 10 years ago, the web was mostly a collection of documents. And people using the web simply wanted to find the document--the site with the most relevant information. Search emerged as a tool to locate sites, and Google’s innovation--to identify the most "relevant" sites--made it the market leader.
Fast forward to 2010. The Internet is now a core productivity tool. People use it to perform all sorts of tasks. And yet the design of search engines, for the most part, has remained entrenched in the idea that the user is looking for a page, rather than an accomplishment.
Search, say the folks at Bing, needs to catch up to this new model. To that end, Microsoft has identified about 160 “tasks” it believes people are actually trying to accomplish when they use search--tasks like plan trips, comparison shop, buy tickets. At yesterday’s rollout, executives said Bing has developed functionality for about 40 of those tasks so far, and it’ll keep chipping away at them one-by-one.
“Search started out as a site-finding tool for the topical Web,” Nadella said. “Now search needs to help people with what they are actually trying to do when they’re finding a site.”
Bing’s insight that search needed a paradigm shift came about three years ago when Microsoft’s previous search product was limping along, far behind Google. Users weren’t giving Microsoft a shot, spokesman Stefan Weitz told Fast Company, and engineers wanted to know why. So they started poring through search logs, user data, and research studies.
“We started seeing these patterns,” Weitz said. “Search queries were traditionally thought of to be: query to result to page. But in actuality what we were seeing were these long chains. People would start on Monday with a query on Lake Tahoe. Then they’d add a refinement: ‘Lake Tahoe rental.’ Then ‘Lake Tahoe rental family.’ Then ‘Lake Tahoe rental for 6.’ These constant modifications would happen over the course of a month, in some cases. That told us that people were using this search product in a way it wasn’t designed. [That told us] there’s a task model there.”
Advances in technology have made it possible for Bing to effect the shift to the new model. The proliferation of APIs (application programming interfaces) means that Microsoft can import data and tools from other sites and services into Bing--like the OpenTable reservation system--in ways not previously possible. The fact that more and more websites are “structuring” the data on their pages means that a Bing robot can read a page and tell, for example, that a recipe is a recipe rather than an undifferentiated mass of text. And new developments in geospatial tools as well as the introduction of social networks are giving Bing more dimensions to work with.
Google, of course, is also moving toward “app-ification.” The search giant long ago allowed users to perform calculations right inside the search box, for example, and it innovated the idea of displaying elements like the local time of a far away city , the map of a destination, or movie schedules in search results rather than making users click to another website. In more recent years, Google has pioneered the app-ification of shopping searches, letting you compare products and prices right within its results pages.
But Bing has moved ahead of Google, tackling this approach more comprehensively and for more tasks. Whether that will lead to more profits for Microsoft remains to be seen. The latest numbers from Hitwise  show Google holding on to 71% of search traffic, while Bing only has 10%. But according to Bing, the site has grown 48% since it was launched 19 months ago, and now has 90 million users.
In the near term, many searchers will likely continue to use Google, out of habit in some cases and, in others, because they genuinely prefer it. But in an age when consumers like the idea of having apps that execute discrete functions and serve up utilitarian results quickly and easily, those who try Bing may find that, for certain tasks, it’s the search engine to beat.
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